Political rights, and wrongs

Posted: May 04, 2008 12:00 AM
Political rights, and wrongs

Art imitates life. Then life imitates art. Thus, the emblematic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, echoes today in Michigan.

The movie is about good citizens standing up to a corrupt political machine. Which is kinda what’s been going down in Michigan, just outside Detroit.

Former state legislator Leon Drolet, now head of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, may not often find himself likened to Jimmy Stewart, who played Jefferson Smith, the boy scout leader appointed to the U.S. Senate in the film.

Nor is Rose Bogaert, chair of the Wayne County Taxpayers Association, the spitting image of Jean Arthur, who played Senator Smith’s aide Clarissa Saunders on the big screen.

Yet, Bogaert, with the help of Drolet, launched a petition to recall Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon. And the result — a nasty, vicious campaign by Dillon and his cronies to threaten, smear, and intimidate recall proponents — is vintage Frank Capra. Only this is no movie; it’s real life.

The Dillon recall may be the most important political event of the year. (And yes, I’m well aware of the presidential race.) In all of U.S. history, citizens have recalled only two governors: California’s Gray Davis in 2003 and North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921. Never has a speaker been recalled.

(You may remember, though, that in 1994, Speaker of the U.S. House Tom Foley was defeated in his bid for re-election after he sued the voters of Washington State to overturn their vote for term limits. Foley was the only House Speaker defeated since the Civil War, but he was not recalled. There is no recall process at the federal level that citizens can initiate.)

Frankly, I like recalls. First, it means somebody is paying attention. That alone is nice to know. Second, it is almost always justified. Last, but not least, the voters get the final word.

In Dillon’s case, he earned the recall effort by shepherding through the legislature a massive $1.4 billion tax increase on individuals and businesses in the middle of a recession. Taxpayer groups repeatedly warned legislators that if they listened to capitol interests, who favored the tax hike, over voters, who did not, there would be trouble . . . spelled R-E-C-A-L-L.

In the movie, the establishment press lined up for the machine and against reform. Likewise, Michigan’s big papers have condemned the recall and defended Dillon. The Detroit News went so far recently as to call the recall “pointless” in an editorial. Why when citizens get active to take part in a lawful governmental process, do those who buy ink by the barrel denigrate the effort?

The News also argued the recall will cost Michigan taxpayers even more because it requires an expensive special election. It must be embarrassing for those constantly proclaiming the need to tax and spend in greater fullness and glory to have to resort to charging that the cost of an election is too much for the taxpayers to bear.

Except, oops, the charge just isn’t true. The regularly scheduled August primary will piggyback the recall vote. No special election necessary.

Meanwhile, an unscientific Detroit News cyber-poll shows more than 80 percent in favor of recalling Dillon. Oh, well, we’ve grown used to editorial boards being as out of touch as the politicians and special interests.

What we haven’t grown used to — and let’s hope we never do — are campaigns of voter harassment run by elected officials and state workers sworn to serve the public. In two past columns, I’ve detailed some of these anti-democratic antics, especially in the speaker’s district. Blockers include Dillon staffers from Lansing, supposedly on their off hours and vacation time, coming into the district to harass petitioners.

As Leon Drolet points out, “Their intent is to keep it off the ballot by any means necessary.” But lately these means have grown more and more despicable:

    • Recall opponents have repeatedly tried to drag proponents into court on ridiculous, trumped up charges to distract them from the recall campaign.
    • The union-sponsored Michigan Association of Police Organizations has pumped thousands of robo-calls into the district warning residents that there are “extremists” walking about and purposely mischaracterizing the recall effort as “illegal.”
    • One of the individuals hired by the Michigan Democratic Party as a “voter educator,” and alleged to be harassing those residents circulating the recall petition, was discovered to be an eight-time felon out on parole. His convictions include weapons violations and armed robbery.
    • Police in Redford Township blocked citizens from petitioning on the same side of the street as the local post office on Tax Day, April 15th. Not merely was the police presence ridiculous overkill, Redford Township Supervisor Miles Handy, a Dillon crony, told recall supporters they would be charged for the cost of the police time.
    • Last, but not least, a judge had to send a letter to local police reminding them not to harass those involved in the petition effort.

Harassment, both legal and political, is wrong. But when the intimidation involves the police, a frightening line has been crossed. Injecting fear into politics isn’t new, but that makes it no less loathsome.

But most telling, and disturbing, was Drolet’s explanation of the palpable fear of Speaker Dillon and Supervisor Handy expressed by district residents. “We had a number of people want to contribute, who live in Dearborn Heights, who live in Redford Township, in Livonia,” Drolet explained. “But once they found out that Miles Handy was going to see their name, they were worried about their liquor licenses, if they had them, they were worried about their business license and they were worried about treasury coming down and doing a little audit.”

Fighting the powers that be, the powers that ultimately live off the money we pay to our government in taxes, can be a dangerous endeavor.

In the movie, the good guy wins. The same may prove true in Michigan. This past week, recall supporters turned in nearly twice as many signatures as the law requires. This August, no doubt after every possible legal assault against the effort has been exhausted, the voters will decide.

My favorite line in the movie is when Sen. Smith sharply responds to another senator: “The people of my state need permanent relief from crooked men riding their backs.” In human affairs, much less politics, nothing is permanent. But the recall of Speaker Dillon will provide much needed relief.