Lessons From the Trenches
Hi, students. Welcome to Participatory Democracry 101. Please take a seat – and remember, it’s OK to use money, lies, or intimidation to convince your fellow students to move so you can have the seat you want.
No, stop that – I didn’t say physical force. There’s your first lesson: Physically attacking your opponent, at least in Texas, probably won’t win an election; you must learn to attack in other ways. Now, let’s make sure everyone’s in the right class. “Understanding the Texas Legislature” is actually a theater course, offered by the Department of Comedy, Tragedy, and Farce. Ethics is being taught … hmm, I think they’ve dropped that class. This one is about what you need to know to run for local political office. What qualifies me to teach this class?
Well, I’ve run for public office in Fort Worth three times now. And I’ve learned enough in the process to qualify for a doctorate in human nature. A few years ago, some of the things I saw going on in this town convinced me to run for the Fort Worth City Council. I did that twice and then, emboldened by my lack of success, took on the mayor. Each time, I thought that, even if I couldn’t win, I could get some honest debate going on some important issues, like the Trinity River Vision plan, gas wells, and attempts to run poor people out of the Woodhaven area. Big mistake. I should have remembered that this is a one-daily-newspaper town and that the tv news shows, by and large, don’t cover local politics. So each time, my message had to get out mostly via routes like e-mail and the alternative press. In the beginning, I idealistically believed that the “truth” applied to any issue would be self-evident and would ultimately win the day. Undoubtedly, the greatest lesson I learned is that the truth (well duh!) is the first bloody casualty of the campaign.
Not only are facts distorted and misrepresented by the most professional politicians and their consultants, but those folks are then supported by our daily newspaper with marginally ethical acts. For instance, when I ran for city council last year against Danny Scarth, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram chose to print information about my sexual orientation just before election day. Gay issues were not relevant to the race, but the paper managed to slip that information in anyway – just in time to influence the outcome of the election. This year, the Star-T managed to locate its alleged scruples and declined to write about a letter that Mayor Mike Moncrief sent to voters late in the campaign. It wasn’t about the mayor’s race (Moncrief mostly didn’t acknowledge there was a race for his position, refusing my offer of a debate).
Instead, it was about District 6, where Clyde Picht was trying to regain his old seat from Jungus Jordan. But it did involve me. Moncrief’s letter said Picht had been part of a group that filed an ethics charge against him in 2004, and moaned about how embarrassing that had been. Only problem is, Picht had nothing to do with that. It was me who filed the charge against the mayor. And I didn’t even know Clyde Picht at the time. I called the Star-T to tell them this. But, gosh, this time the editors said it would be unfair to write about the letter that close to the election. Don’t believe it. They had plenty of time to write about it – just like they did in 2004. The daily paper did write this spring about which council candidates owed back taxes – including Scarth, now the incumbent in District 4.
Reporter Mike Lee wrote about Scarth’s supposed oversight in not paying his property taxes for 2006 and that he was being sued by his mortgage company for nonpayment of his residential loan. All very important info. But what the paper failed to report was that Scarth has been late in paying his taxes for most of the last 10 years. No editorial has been written about the fact that, in several of those years, he was so delinquent that his account was forwarded to the bad-debt collectors. One year’s taxes were paid 507 days late. Strangely enough, Scarth’s back taxes for 2005 and 2006, totalling more than $10,000, were paid in April of an election year.
The more important question should have been, how can you trust someone to handle public tax money and the complexities of citywide budgeting when they cannot manage their own financial obligations? So much for ethics at the Star-T and in the mayor’s office. Perhaps I should complain to the Fort Worth Ethics Commission (again) about Moncrief. Oops – it’s no longer functioning! Our mayor has decided that Fort Worth just doesn’t need anybody asking those kinds of questions. Well, that’s enough for your first day.
For homework, estimate how much money your mayor made in 2006 from gas companies that have benefitted from his votes on things like drilling regulations. Second: Find the next biggest city in Texas with no working ethics panel. Third: Write a short theme on why voters in Fort Worth might be too disgusted to go to the polls. Class dismissed.