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Suits, Ties and Vested Interests

It's just real hard sometimes to believe that we're a representative democracy. One-third of the country is ready to go to war in Iraq all by our lonesomes, if it comes to that; another third will support a war if it's sanctioned by the United Nations; the remaining third is opposed to the war. So the polls say. Congress, however, is made up overwhelmingly of members of the first stripe, with some of the second and only a handful of the third.

Why? The answer begins with a $400 billion per year military budget--that's a lot of vested, war-chested interests--and ends with a culture of popinjay conformity as illustrated by the call-and-response farce known as the State of the Union Address. President: God is on OUR side. Members of Congress: (leaping to their feet) YAHOO!!!

Did comrades in the Great Hall of the People, robotic cheerleaders for the pronouncements of Chairman Mao, ever look more foolish? Only to Americans, who hate totalitarianism but don't always recognize it when it's garbed in dark suits with coordinated accessories.

Uniformity. Was anyone out there struck by the photograph in The News & Observer Friday depicting the failure of the state House of Representatives to settle on a new speaker? In the pic: Six Republicans facing off against seven Democrats. All men. And all, to a man, outfitted in dark suits and tasteful ties.

Yes, 12 white men and one African-American, Rep. Mickey Michaux, the Durham Democrat. When it comes to who's got the biggest office, boys will be boys, obviously. Girls, stand back.

Interesting that the only one of the 120 House members who broke ranks with his party was Rep. Michael Decker, elected in Forsyth County as a Republican but now apparently comfortable in the Democratic caucus notwithstanding his right-wing views. Decker's switch put the House at 60-60 Democrats and Republicans. But if the previous Democratic speaker, Jim Black, has to pass muster with a Decker to keep his job, does it really matter to the rest of us whether he gets it or it goes to a Republican?

Over the weekend, Michaux and Rep. Martin Nesbitt, the Buncombe populist, were trying to get enough black and progressive members together to cut a deal with the Republicans. They had five, supposedly, but needed more since, unlike the Democrats, quite a few conservative Republicans weren't willing to share power with their lib'rul enemies. Trouble was, there weren't enough progressives.

Bottom line: Whether the speaker is Black or the latest Republican aspirant, George Holmes, the majority coalition in the House will be conservatives. As in Congress, progressive-minded citizens are underrepresented. Why? Same reason, different vested interests. At the state level, they start with the paving contractors and the development interests, whose fortunes depend on the choice of highway alignments. Add the banks, which finance them.

Is it any wonder that taxes in North Carolina are highly regressive, with the poorest folks paying the highest percentage of their incomes in state and local taxes. And in the bipartisan, tax-cutting fever of the '90s, guess which North Carolinians were the only ones left with higher taxes as a percentage of their incomes? According to the watchdog N.C. Budget and Tax Center: The bottom 20 percent.

Diversity. Coincidentally (?) 20 percent is also the approximate percentage of women in the N.C. General Assembly. There are now 28 women out of 120 House members, and seven women out of 50 members in the Senate. Meager as they are, those numbers are up from 23 and six, respectively, four years ago. In that, they buck a national trend: Since 1998, women have lost ground in state legislative elections (both in 2000 and 2002) and now account for 1,645 in all, or 22 percent of the total.

Says Democracy North Carolina's Peter Walz: "Remember that studies of major campaign contributors show that 4 out of 5 are men, and 4 out of 5 have incomes over $100,000 a year. The good ole boy network of campaign money has to be dismantled if we are going to see real diversity in our elected bodies."

Same Old. Wake Democrats picked Harold Webb, 77, to replace newly elected state Sen. Vernon Malone, 70, on the county commission. Not former Sheriff John Baker, 67. The reason: Webb campaigned for the job, Baker didn't. The people choosing were party precinct chairs and elected officials who have a bias in favor of campaigning. That said, however, it was a missed chance for Southeast Raleigh's black leaders--Webb, Malone and Baker, for instance--to find and promote a new face in the community. A woman, even. Someone who could have run for the office in two years, which Webb promised not to do if the party'd just support an older gentlemen one more time. EndBlock

Bob Geary (412-5051) will be one of the hoped-for thousands protesting the Iraq war: Feb. 15, State Capitol, noon. E-mail


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