Saturday, April 18, 2009

About a Powerful Old Time Democrat (Oops, I Used a Bad Word)

Review of “Mr. Speaker” by Richard Hyatt

This is an intriguing book about Tom Murphy, a political giant in Georgia legislative politics. This was a powerful legislator who was once allied with a Governor known for using an axe handle to keep Blacks from patronizing his restaurant. He was a leading gadfly often opposing Governor Jimmy Carter. The book captures a person and time in politics and allows the reader to examine what happened through the eyes of a driving force during that period.

Murphy served in World War II and like many veterans of that war, would only say about his shrapnel injury “I don’t want to talk about it and I won’t. When you see innocent young boys blown right out of the water, it ain’t pretty.” While he was part of the silent war generation, he was vocal when it came to politics.

Murphy was the last of three relatives to serve in the Georgia legislature. His brother James first won the seat in 1944. He served during the tumultuous period when confusion over adopting a new Constitution just before the death of the Governor-elect led to three people claiming to be Governor. The legislature recognized the son of the deceased Governor-elect as Governor until the U.S. Supreme Court decided the newly elected Lt. Governor was Governor. They also invalidated any actions the Governor and legislature had taken. James Murphy ruined his political career when he voted in favor of keeping the Democratic Party open only to white voters while publicly doubting that position. The bill passed but the Supreme Court nullified it. He did not seek reelection. Two years later, his cousin Harold Murphy was elected to the seat. In 1960, Tom won the seat when Harold decided to step down.

Back then, Governors appointed legislative committee chairs. The Governor had a direct phone line to the Speaker’s podium and would tell the Speaker what he wanted done. Tom Murphy became a rare legislator who received a chairmanship in only his second term. Governor Carl Sanders, though, expected Murphy to do the Governor’s bidding. This was the same legislative session when Speaker George L. Smith felt reassured he would be re-appointed as the Governor had proclaimed that George Smith would be his Speaker. Yet, Carl Sanders then made the surprising announcement that an obscure legislator, George T. Smith, was the new Speaker. Speaker George T. Smith later removed Murphy from his chair position due to his political independence.

Governor Sanders refused to let the legislature adjourn until it considered a bill Sanders wanted. Murphy used a Parliamentarian procedure to ask for clarification of the bill, paragraph by paragraph. After only two pages of the 78 page bill had been clarified to Murphy’s satisfaction, the Governor gave up seeking the bill’s passage.

The 1966 election for Governor failed to produce a winner, as the Constitution then required a candidate to receive a majority of votes. The legislature then was required to decide which of the two candidates receiving the most votes would become Governor. The legislature used this opportunity to obtain a good degree of independence from being controlled by the Governor and made a deal with the second place finisher, Lester Maddox. Governor Maddox, an outspoken foe of desegregation, asked Murphy to be his floor leader. Murphy and Maddox became strong allies.

Murphy rose to being Speaker, and a sharp critic of the winner of the 1970 election, Jimmy Carter. Upon taking the Speakership, Murphy declared “I am tied to no one except to the individual members of the caucus.” These comments would return to haunt Murphy. This was fine while Murphy’s Democratic Caucus controlled the legislature. Indeed, Murphy felt part of his duty was to bully Republican legislators as best as he could. Yet, as Republicans increasingly won more Georgia House seats, the Republicans saw Murphy as a partisan and an opponent. Republicans held 29 seats in 1974 and had risen to strong minority of 78 seats in 1999. Georgia Republicans sought to impede Murphy’s legislative efforts.

Murphy had a philosophy on how to show political strength. As he explained, “as Speaker or as a leader, you don’t use it unless it is absolutely necessary. And when you use it, you don’t disclose it. Your just make things happen.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor described Murphy’s power as Speaker by explaining that “to do as well as the Speaker, you either need the respect or the fear of the body. He has had both. His survival has been on the fact that his troops know there are ramifications if they don’t follow his lead. The trick is to accomplish things without those powers.”

Murphy often proved his loyalty to his caucus. He willingly took the blame for mistakes fellow Democratic legislators made. He felt he could better withstand the criticism from a press that was already mostly hostile towards him.

Governor Carter was a notorious micro-manager who sent Speaker Murphy handwritten letters nearly every day. Murphy, though, tore them up and threw them out. Murphy regretted not keeping them once Carter became President.

In 1997, when Bill Bulger resigned as Massachusetts State Senate President, Murphy replaced him at the nation’s most senior state legislative presiding officer. Murphy, though, found his leadership challenged more. While historically a conservative, Murphy strongly distrusted some of the emerging conservative leaders. As he put it, “we have way too much religion but not enough Christianity. That’s the reason I don’t have too much respect for the Christian Coalition…Problem is, these folks who run it and get all that money take half truths, absolute fabrications, and dispense them under the guise of Christianity.”

Murphy oversaw a changing political climate. The formerly all male, all white legislature became increasingly diversified. Speaker Murphy and Senate President Zell Miller feuded constantly. At the same time, some of the past excitement voters felt towards the legislature began fading. Where there once had been over a dozen reporters covering the legislature, and these reporters were among the highest paid reporters in the state, the Atlanta newspapers assigned just four reporters to report on the legislature during 1998.

Murphy’s feud with Zell Miller subsided a bit when Zell Miller became Governor. They learned to work professionally together. Murphy even yielded his years of opposition to establishing a state lottery and agreed with Governor Miller to create the lottery.

Murphy may have been, as one reporter described him, “the epitome of old-line reactionary county unit politics”, referring back to a time when Georgia election law awarded all the votes in a county to the candidate who carried that county. Yet, Murphy also presided over much political evolution as Georgia politics modernized. This is an excellent biography of one of the longest serving state legislative leaders in American history.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Advance a Child When Ready

More and more, studies are showing that a simple innovation in our education system produces vast improvements to students’ abilities to learn. It recognizes that most students learn different subjects at varying rates. It notes that students should not be stigmatized by failing a class. Yet they will move from their home rooms to each subject according to their abilities.
This would be done by offering all basic courses at the same time. A student should not be passed to that course’s next level until the student successfully completes the level the student currently attends. If a student excels, that student may be advanced at an accelerated rate to a higher level. Instead of keeping students in the same grade and promoting them or failing them in all grade levels according to their overall performance, let them proceed in each course level at their appropriate level of educational attainment
Under this plan, all students would be kept in home room according to age. Students would go to the grade level in each course that is appropriate to them. Some students learn subjects at different rates, and may even learn one subject more rapidly while being delayed in learning another subject. Thus, for instance, a 5th grade student could be in 5th grade homeroom while attending 5th grade English, 4th grade Math, and 6th grade Science.
This has the benefits of minimizing stigmatizing students for not being in their proper grade level, at least in home room. It avoids the problems of failing or promoting a student in all subjects, which is what many schools do: i.e. a student who fails 5th grade repeats all courses in 5th grade subjects the following year.
Schools that do this have found this solves several learning problems. I would urge School Directors and school officials in schools that do not do this to consider changing their systems. The students will benefit.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Even Republicans Should Consider Campaign Finance Reform

This is the age of the reform movement. People demand change. It is great that many are becoming more aware and involved in public policy discussions and activism. Yet, keep in mind exactly what reform means and what will result. State government reform just for the sake of reform may only accidentally be good.

In an historical sense, Pennsylvania has been a leading reform state. It was only a few decades ago when the lobbyists for major corporations were not only considered “the 51st and 52nd State Senators” in the 50 member State Senate, they were the de facto leaders, at least on issues concerning business, corporate taxes, and employee rights. These lobbyists would give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’, indicating how they expected Senators to vote. The Senators listened, as many of them were on the corporate payroll as legislative work was part-time. In addition, most legislators had no staff, no research office, and little ability to learn about legislation from sources other than the Governor or from lobbyists. The Governor, often a candidate literally picked and supported manufacturing titans (the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association was and still is a dominant political force), administered a state with little oversight from a relatively powerless legislature.

Reform movements emerged nationally, and within Pennsylvania and a number of other states, that empowered their legislatures. This increased the balance of powers between the branches of government. Several state legislatures became full time and obtained move oversight over the Executive branch. Full time committees now review the actions and laws of state government and actively seek outside comments. The result is a legislature that better responds to the public. It holds more hearings, receives more public input, inspects budget requests more thoroughly, considers and debates legislation and now specifies legal details that previously were left for the administrative branch to decide.

New reform movements exist today. I urge people to consider carefully what the intended and unintended (some may also quietly be intended) consequences are of these reform movements. The legislature is visible target for criticism, and that is fair. Yet many of the current “reform” organizations call for reforms straight from a conservative political agenda. Calling for a smaller legislature makes for good rhetoric. Yet proposals doing that reduce oversight powers or make it more difficult to receive public comment can do much more public harm. A part-time legislature will be less effective to respond or even listen to problems anyone has. They will also have less of an ability to do anything to solve difficulties.

The early reform movement had other successes in redistricting reform. Every state either redistricts its legislature by having the legislature do it or by an independent commission. Pennsylvania was one of reform states that placed redistricting into the hands of an independent commission. While redistricting is a complex issue, I find it a step backwards to see some proposals defined as “reform” that place redistricting back into the hands of the legislature.

In my opinion, true reform is most needed in campaign finance. Ironically, that is the one area I don’t see the conservative movement and their business allies calling for changes. Indeed, some of these groups actively oppose campaign finance reform.

The amount of money spent to run for office is one of the most dramatic changes in state politics I’ve seen in a few decades. We’ve gone from a state where people alleged that Milton Shapp was attempting to buy the Governorship to where, if he spent the same amount today, the press wouldn’t even consider him today as a serious candidate worth coverage. A few decades ago, a candidate could run a door-to-door campaign and spend practically nothing and if the candidate had a good message, win. Today, candidates need to raise lots of money to even get in the race. How much do they need? Last year, we saw one State Senate primary where a challenger spent over a million dollars, just on the primary election, while the incumbent spent almost as much.

Campaign finance may be the government reform best worth championing. Several states have approved public financing. This will probably require a long fight, and will require getting support and commitments from many candidates and public officials, but it is probably the most essential of the upcoming reforms. This is the good fight I urge government change activists to undertake.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Philosophical Poetry

Anarchists are to unite,
With nothing to lose,
But all of their meaning.
Libertarians in fright,
For what they must chose
Is more regulating.
Socialists do see the light,
When paying their dues,
To begin competing.