I thought about all that Monday when a local newspaper columnist attacked one of the few honest politicians I know. His crime? Refusing to try to ram through higher taxes in the Alabama Legislature to give money to a county government that’s in bankruptcy because of long-term corruption and mismanagement.
Over the 20 years I worked as a political consultant, I had few clients I liked or respected. Paul DeMarco was one of the very few who I both liked and respected. I did campaign work for him when he was running — successfully — for the Alabama House seven years ago. He was intelligent, thoughtful, principled and honest. He understood that he had to balance what he thinks is best with what the voters of his district want. He thinks that good people can make a difference by being elected and fighting for better government. I don’t think that’s possible, but he’s idealistic enough to try.
In his years in the House, he’s become a respected leader. He had a shot at becoming speaker of the House when Republicans took over the Legislature for the first time in more than a century, but he lost to someone with many more years of experience in the House. He’s the co-chair of the House delegation for the largest county in the state. He’s known as a peacemaker who’s willing to meet with anybody to try to find common ground for solutions between people who don’t agree with each other.
In other words, he’s everything your high school government textbook told you was the ideal as a political leader.
But that’s not good enough for John Archibald, who is a columnist for The Birmingham News. This buffoon apparently thinks that his job is to talk really loudly, whether he makes sense or not. He’s never seemed especially bright, but he’s always had a self-righteous attitude that sends a not-so-subtle signal that he knows so much more than you common people do.
Archibald and his newspaper have long been cheerleaders for the progressive establishment idea of solving problems through government. They like to pose as moderate conservatives at times, but their only real guiding principle over the years has been supporting whatever the civic establishment seemed to like that year. They’ll selectively attack certain interest groups at times, but only when it allows them to self-righteously show off their progressive credentials. They even won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1991 — for analyzing the state’s tax system and demanding that taxes be raised on “the rich.”
Birmingham is primarily in Jefferson County, which is the county that filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history a few months back. About a decade ago, when it was clear to those of us working in politics that there was serious corruption going on in the county, I met with a Birmingham News reporter and laid out the case that elected officials at the courthouse were corrupt and incompetent. He was absolutely uninterested. He listened with polite disinterest, but didn’t ask any followup questions and never showed the least bit of interest. It’s not the kind of story that an Establishment Newspaper goes after — not until long after the whole thing blows up into corruption trials and eventual bankruptcy. (Of course, once that happened, they piously intoned about how bad it was — like that did a lot of good after they were asleep at the switch for all those years.)
So even though the people at the News didn’t cause the county’s problems, I’ve seen them as complicit for not asking questions and for not looking for the fire when the smoke was there for everyone to see. And at every step along the way, they were smug and condescending and self-righteous.
Now that the county is locked in bankruptcy and is trying to dig its way out of billions of dollars in debt — to banks that were all too happy to put the county into positions that were untenable — Archibald and the clowns at the News want one thing and one thing only: Higher taxes. Specifically, they want an occupational tax — a tax that everybody in the county would pay for the privilege of having a job. It’s basically a county income tax by another name.
Republicans in the county’s legislative delegation don’t want a new tax, because they know their voters would crucify them for it. They are very well aware that voters want some solution other than new taxes. The Democrats in the legislative delegation are quite eager for a new occupational tax, so they’re not especially interested in other potential solutions. So there’s an impasse.
As the legislative session has been winding down, a bill that would have enacted a tax increase was effectively killed by not bringing it out of a House committee. This columnist blames DeMarco and another GOP legislator named Jim Carns. For this terrible sin, Archibald calls one of the state’s brightest and most trustworthy politicians a “traitor” to the county. (You really need to read it yourself. In addition to being a drama queen in print, Archibald is also a rather bad writer. In fact, he’s so bad at times that he’s funny.)
And this is the message that local newspaper readers will get when they don’t know the complex facts of what’s going on. They will be told that DeMarco is a traitor to the people of the county — when he’s one of the ones who’s saved taxpayers from a bad bill that would have raised their taxes without fixing the problem in the long term.
So why would people such as Paul DeMarco want to hold office? I haven’t talked to Paul in awhile, so I have no idea what he would say about it at this point. I guess he still has faith that it’s worth it and that good people can change an evil and corrupt system. I don’t believe that the system can be changed. What’s worse, I see the system grind down the good people who try.
So do you want to be elected to office? Many of the people who hold power around you are idiots. Many of them are dishonest and conniving and narcissistic. Voters are going to blame you for what you did (and for what you didn’t do). And to top it off, idiot columnists are going to call you a traitor if you don’t ram taxes down people’s throats, whether you think they’re a good idea or not.
Remind me again why this coercive political system is such a good idea. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.