Republicans getting mighty like their predecessors

By Tom Baxter

Southern Republicans are coming to their Pogo moment.

Back when they were a persecuted minority in states across the South, Republicans used to wail about the corruption and arrogance of the Democrats, at their blatant abuses of power and craven self-aggrandizement.

Now the Republicans are riding high, and looking forward to riding higher with the new legislative and congressional maps aimed at cementing their control. Republican presidential candidates swear their affection for grits, and Southern Republican legislators feel secure enough in their seats to quarrel with Southern Republican governors.

Yet all does not rest well within the region’s now solidly majority party. They have met the enemy, and to paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Okefenokee critter, they are them.

— Last Wednesday, a jury in Montgomery found all six defendants not guilty in the second “bingo trial,” stemming from a vote-buying scandal which played a major role in the Republicans capturing the majority in the Alabama legislature in 2010.

The federal prosecutors in the case were so shamed by the verdict they left by the back door. Astoundingly, they collected more than 10,000 hours of wiretaps, and produced more evidence for the garden-variety racism of the Republicans wearing the wires than for any criminality on the part of the Democratic legislators, the lobbyists or the casino owners they were recording. You could take a blank checkbook and a floozie with a Brazil wax job, and top that performance in most any legislature.

The bingo trial was the latest manifestation of the sick culture of politics by criminal trial which has grown up in Alabama. It started when Democrats pressed ethics charges against Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction, forcing his resignation in 1993. But the same self-destructive behavior has been embraced and enlarged on by Republicans. And they do it on the federal government’s dime. The costs to the American taxpayer for this grand fishing expedition are likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

— On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld former Gov. Haley Barbour’s pardon of more than 200 inmates. The 6-3 decision leaned heavily on the principle of separation of powers, and seems a reasonable response to the question the court had to decide.

But it’s unlikely to quell entirely the controversy which has swirled since Barbour – one of the state’s most popular governors in years – made the pardons the final note of his administration before leaving office. No one has accused Barbour of outright bribery, as was the case with former Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton’s Tennessee pardon scandal back in 1979. But there have been charges of cronyism and undue influence, similar to the charges Republicans used to make against Democrats.

— On Friday, in a carefully choreographed legal minuet, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned, was indicted and pleaded out to a Frogmore stew of ethics charges, from using campaign funds to buy iPads and football tickets, to giving his own money to contributors to give back to his campaign so he’d look more like the real thing than he was.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson called the investigation “unprededented,” and perhaps that word does apply to the investigation. But the offenses themselves are about as precedented as they could be. Former Gov. Mark Sanford avoided prosecution on similar charges, but had to pay more than $100,000 in ethics fines and penalties. Ard’s predecessor as lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, was more a low-level offender, but he managed to have two accidents, four traffic tickets and a suspended driver’s license while in office. If Ard broke any new ground, it was only in the unseemly hurry with which he pulled himself up to the trough.

South Carolina, opined columnist Andy Brack, has now “passed old stalwarts for disgrace like Louisiana and New York.”

— Also on Friday, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the Republican-drawn state Senate map, saying lawmakers ignored the standards approved by voters in a 2010 anti-gerrymandering referendum.

When you step back and look at them as a whole, these several instances of corruption, strong-arm tactics and deceit look mighty like the system Republicans used to crusade against. But there’s no evidence of much concern about this, as evidenced by the glib fashion in which Georgia Republicans spent most of last week’s legislative crossover day to ram through a series of red-meat measures designed to appeal to their base this fall, to the exclusion of any legislation designed to create jobs or enact stronger ethics standards.

To reiterate, this was not so much a departure as a continuation. The Georgia legislature passed a lot of reactionary laws to get votes when the Democrats were in charge, too. Former Gov. Zell Miller’s 1994 two-strikes sentencing bill was tougher and far more sweeping than anything Republicans passed last week. By comparison, much of what they passed was popgun stuff, like the bill which sets up a pilot program to require the non-exempted food stamp recipients to take personal growth courses.

There being no money for such a thing, this bill is unlikely to go anywhere past the Senate. But when a Democrat questioned the projected $772 million cost of the program if it were ever implemented statewise, Republican Sen. William Ligon replied with no apparent sense of irony that the feds would pick up half the tab. Put a D after his name, and we could be in a time warp with the ‘70s.

What was different about this crossover day was the sheer volume of such bills – the Democrats were much more economical with their red meat — and the smug disregard for any complicating facts, even those that are easily retrievable. Little things — like the $17 which Sen. John Albers claimed would be the cost of the drug tests his bill would require for welfare recipients, when it’s hard to find reputable estimates for a cost less than $30, including Florida, where such a law is in effect.

Albers claimed the Florida program has saved that state $1.8 million, which a quick Google search will reveal is based on information in a pamphlet by a conservative think tank, which a federal judge in Florida has declared “is not competent expert opinion, nor is it offered as such, nor could it be reasonably construed as such.” Even without the legal costs (the law is currently under temporary injunction), an investigation by a Central Florida television station has produced evidence the law is actually costing that state money.

Little things like the facts don’t matter so much, when you have this solid a majority. At least, that’s what the Democrats used to think.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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