Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Sad Beginning of A New Day

I last talked with Terri Hodge the day after my post, reacting to her assertion that eminent domain was a greater issue in District 100 than education. She objected to the inference insisted that she understood the importance of and the need for a college education. Her comments came during an interview with the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News. She admitted that she should have phrased her thoughts better and went on to defend her legislative record on education. You can read about all of that here.

Throughout our conversation Terri sounded defeated and defensive. Though we didn't talk about her legal problems, I knew that, as well as a tough re-election bid were on her mind. She didn't sound like she was looking forward to the upcoming debate with her challenger, Eric Johnson. Eric represents, under the best of circumstances, a prospective changing of the guard in Dallas politics. A native Dallasite, from a poor section of the city, with an Ivy League (Harvard) education, who looks to offer himself back to that community in public service. But changes of the guard don't often happen easily or neatly. And the tensions of this race have been palpable.

While Terri vigorously tried to get her point across, there was none of the defiance in her attitude that I've grown used to, indeed, at times, looked forward to across the years.

Early yesterday, I got word that Terri Hodge reached a plea deal with federal authorities, pleading guilty to income tax evasion. In a public statement, Ms. Hodge said, "I freely admit that I violated the federal income tax laws in this regard, and I am prepared and willing to accept the consequences of my actions...I cannot in good conscience continue to seek re-election and I believe that the only appropriate action for me to take is to immediately terminate all of my campaign activities."

As someone who knows and likes Ms. Hodge, I'm sad for her. As a constituent of hers, pity really isn't appropriate. I'm profoundly disappointed. She knows that what she did was wrong. And unfortunately, this is a continuation of the sad saga of corruption in South Dallas politics which casts both politicians and supporters in a very bad light.

Many African-American politicians have run for office in response to issues or the needs of the community. Some who are successful in getting elected either do not count the cost of public service, or are seduced by 'opportunities' once they take office.

A member of the House of Representatives in the Texas Legislature is compensated (I hesitate to say 'paid'), $7200 annually. When the legislation is in session, they get a $128 per diem. Including the annual compensation and per diem, legislators earn a little over $32,000 for their biennial term. There is a small amount of money available for permanent staff. But at the end of the day, those running for office know - or should know this going in. Consequently, those who run for office have to be able to 'afford' to serve.

That probably should change.

It's not going to any time soon.

Cutting corners, unethical and illegal behavior makes the position even more costly, not only to the politician but to his or her constituents, in both the quality of representation received and the consequences of violated public trust. But it also makes it difficult for those who succeed them. Both in the expectations and the increased scrutiny. There is a sense that they must be more pure and have more integrity than their predecessors and their peers.

Mine is not the naive disappointment of someone who expects representatives and leaders to adhere to the type of moral and ethical standards which suggest that we elect, appoint or recognize those who 'do our perfection for us'. Every public servant has feet of clay. And the suggested 'fall from grace' of minority leaders is no more reprehensible than that of their white counterparts. But for a community which suffers from decades of inadequate representation because of segregation and often the growing pains of emerging leadership after segregation ended, these failures tend to have more devastating consequences.

Liking Terri Hodge, Don and Sheila Hill, being appreciative for the good they've done is one thing. Being prayerful for them in they're trouble is the right thing to do. But acknowledging of which they've been accused and for which they've been convicted is equally as right. We cannot and should not be judgemental. There will be plenty of moralizing and editorializing about how 'bad' they are. But, Black or white, they are not the first politicians convicted of corruption - they will not be the last. And there are those who love them all and who are friends with them who will not turn their backs on them in spite of the trouble they've made for themselves.

Those who have been hypercritical of the communities they represented for placing them in office, should remember that they have not received unqualified public support from these communities. There were no protests, there were no demonstrations. There were not threats of 'revolution' nor were there any excuses made for their behavior. African-Americans sympathized with them as people. And perhaps explains why, while there were no overwhelming demonstrations of support, there were also no loud voices of condemnation. The constituencies, of these representatives, without asking for approval from the larger community, decided to sympathize, while acknowledging their failures in their public role. That is far different from approval.

What that larger community fails to understand, is that the African-American community in particular, while recognizing the need for respect from other communities, does not consider that respect a validation of personhood. It is, quite simply a recognition of the communities right to make its own choices. Ultimately, we will know that we've reached a point of true equality, when black leaders can fail and that failure is not a reflection on a entire people - in much the same way as whites don't want the moral failures of a Strom Thurmon to be seen as representative of the moral failings of an entire race.

However, the fine balance that be struck, while not asking for approval or permission to select our own leaders, the character of those leaders and representatives is important, because in them and through them, we show ourselves, our communities, to be accountable to all other constituencies and communities. In those roles, egregious failures in integrity, or lack of competence, tend to get translated into a lack of credibility on the part of that constituency. Anyone can argue all they want that this shouldn't be so, but it is a reality that has to be accepted.

Whether or not the reaction of Black people in Dallas, represents a coming of age of the voters, I don't know. What I do hope is that it represents a coming of age of those who present themselves for public office. Being 'qualified' to hold office no longer means being simply being 'available' or 'willing'. It now means being prepared to withstand the temptations of public service and the scrutiny that goes with it. Those qualifications provide the African-American community what it really needs and deserves - a choice.

That may narrow the pool of potential candidates considerably. But perhaps that may be a good thing.

1 comment:

mbell said...

Your points are well taken and very well stated. Hyper-critical citizens like Earth Angels always suppose they are better equipped and mentally brighter than the public servants who dare to serve. Their cynicism is part of a high road that was not constantly vigilant of issues and answers but predictably anxious for others failure.

I hesitate to say who does more damage to our community/society, the Angels or the Politicians. I think there's a hung jury on that matter.