Wednesday, July 23, 2014
After years of friends telling us to watch "The Wire," Todd and I have finally started sitting through the hard-hitting HBO series about crime and corruption—and no small amount of race tension—in Baltimore.
We just started the third season, and I see why everyone thought we should watch it. From empty posturing over crime and the drug war, to corrupt elected officials and elections, parts of the show remind me so much of Jackson, it almost hurts.
The show hasn't been far from my mind as our reporting team has unpacked the shenanigans, finger-pointing and shadowy PAC activity around the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. In fact, I've taken to calling the dark way elections are traditionally conducted in Mississippi "The Game."
In most every election, we just move around the chess pieces but no one ever really wins, certainly not the voters. I'm actually not trying to be cynical about elected officials; it's the process that's rotten and corrupt to the core. And the way our disgusting election practices rope in good people and twist their thinking on how elections done is perhaps the worst part.
Take Bishop Ronnie Crudup. In an interview with Anna Wolfe (see page 19 and jfp.ms/crudup for the full transcript), the esteemed religious leader said some things that really disturbed me. And I don't even think he gets why they are so disturbing because such beliefs and practices are an ingrained part of our corrupt political system.
If you don't know by now, Crudup—who, if not a Republican, is certainly a backer of powerful ones like Haley Barbour—started a super PAC to help Cochran keep his seat in the U.S. Senate. Whether or not he did this because he believes Cochran is a friend to the black community (which he says) or because he wants to see the Republicans keep the Senate this fall almost doesn't matter. It's how it was done that was the problem.
Crudup claims his super PAC, which apparently missed filing deadlines that would have educated voters on who was funding it, did everything legally and ethically. But where are the 24-hour reports that PACs are required by law to file before the election after booking advertising and other expenditures? He says the PAC didn't have to report such information because they booked them through a (very GOP-friendly) third party, which gave them "credit" until after the runoff. The check wasn't written, so they didn't have to report the advertising they purchased, Crudup maintains.
Anyone else see a problem with this? Done intentionally or not, it is a perfect strategy for ensuring that voters don't know what kinds of advertising a PAC is placing. (Remember Citizens for Decency in this year's mayor's race; it never filed a thing.) "Ethics" is a subjective word, and it's hard to have it in elections without real transparency.
The bishop also said that there were donors, beyond the Barbour-founded Mississippi Conservatives PAC, left off the report. He would not tell Anna who they are, but said he'd list them on the next quarterly report due with the FEC on Oct. 15.
Oct. 15? This kind of answer makes my head spin. I truly believe Bishop Crudup is a good person—but does he have any idea why these kinds of election rules are set up in the first place? They're about transparency and educated voters. People need to know who is funding the candidates and the campaigns, and the kinds of messaging they're putting out there—before they vote. And often that information is very enlightening.
Remember the Better Jackson PAC a few years back? It was only one of many efforts my newspaper made to get a PAC to disclose what it was up to. In this case, I don't believe the PAC ever intended to tell anyone it was out there, much less who was funding it. It was sending scary mailers to white folks in northeast Jackson (picturing a scared white woman, of course). The hint that broke it open for me is that the mailer used the same faulty crime rankings a local lawyer had used in an earlier campaign for district attorney. The post office box number listed led me to his law firm. Voila.
We then started hounding him to file missing reports. It took until the day before the election, and a lot of public haranguing to get that late report into the Jackson City Clerk's office. It was then that we discovered that the PAC was funded by a group of mostly Republican men who wanted to get then-candidate Marshand Crisler elected clearly because he had pledged to support their Two Lakes project.
See what shadowy PACs can hide?
What gets me the most about Bishop Crudup's answers and unwillingness to supply the donors' names now—I mean, why not if you don't want to hide them?—is his apparent acceptance that this is the way elections are done. I'm astounded that people don't get, or follow, the basic premise that the public has the right to know these things.
"Transparency" has become a buzzword promised by every political candidate we interview. And almost every one of them backslides on those promises once he gets into office and seems to forget that the public, whether media or not, get to ask him questions, and as public servants, he's supposed to answer them. Instead, we get elected officials who seem to think that they're corporate CEOs, hiring PR flacks to shield them from the media and tough questions. This is not good. Not good at all.
Here's the thing, though: I almost feel bad about all the attention Bishop Crudup has gotten for the All Citizens for Mississippi PAC. Not because he and the PAC shouldn't report every single donation and expenditure post-haste—they should this very second—but because he's only the latest in a long line of politicians and power brokers over the decades who have just gone along with The Game, instead of challenging it.
I also take issue with his indicating that any political party, or politician, or strategist who use third parties to place ads, conceal information or play word games with election law could actually be working on behalf of the community. Sure, electing a politician through those means might keep some federal funding for important projects in the short term, but what does it do to create an educated, engaged electorate in the long run, not to mention stifle corruption?
Not very much.
Ultimately, it's up to everyday Mississippians to change the rules of the election game. We must demand better transparency, whether from elected officials or PACs; we must out the election trashmen who paper windshields with lies every election; and we must withhold votes from people who are making a joke out of the election process.
It may be the way it has always been done here, but it's hard to argue that our state has exactly benefitted from such practices, even if some individuals do.
Make no mistake: It won't change unless we demand it. Game?