Thursday, August 21, 2008

Proportionate Debts to Legislators

What do you do with the old sheriff who is no longer suited for the job? In the old Western films, he died in a gun fight or the young deputy stepped up to kick the rampaging gang out of town.

The townspeople would murmur about owing him big for all the times he stepped up against the bad guys. Alternately, others would say he couldn't protect them anymore. Keep him on for past debts? Kick him out for the good of the town?

Consider our less dramatic but no less pathetic version of a state senator who cannot, will not obey the law and focus on the tasks at hand. Second Suffolk Sen. Dianne Wilkerson is now more distraction than defender.

I was amused this week to see that the Bay State Stonewall Democrats put up a sad little litany of her virtues on Bay Windows. That was a reactionary move in response to the previous week's op-ed Ryan Adams and I had calling for her to think of the district instead of her own comfort and stand down.

Let's look at a related extreme. We have entire overlapping generations — WWII (a.k.a the Greatest) and Korean War (a.k.a. originally Entitlement and now Silent) — that seem to think that no payment is big enough or lasts long enough to thank them for their collective actions. While the rest of us don't get those pensions, didn't get the GI Bill and housing subsidies and on and on, just try to have them share the economic pain! If their cost-of-living adjustments to their government payments are not as high as they want, there'll be hell to pay with the funds. Plus the AARP is all over you.

Honey, she'll take care of you.

Likewise, what do we owe to a stalwart state legislator?

On Wilkerson's site, she is quick to point out the earmarks and grants she brought in or even could associate herself with. Even the title for her site is Dianne Delivers '08. Honey, she'll take care of you.

Her website claims are a bit hard to follow. She doesn't start in the sense that she neither promises policy nor is specific about where she leads on legislation.

As a curiosity, I followed a several to see where they led. The short answer is that for a given neighborhood, she does, sort of do what she says. For example, for the Back Bay, she only offers two examples of her effectiveness. She says that she:
  1. ...was able to secure the inclusion of $3.7 million for the Community Boating Facility on the Esplanade.
  2. ...was able to secure $1.2 million for forest regeneration along the Emerald Necklace as outlined in both the Olmsted Park Woodlands Plan, and the Franklin Park Master Plan.
Taken literally, those are kind of true. She shoehorned in earmarks as amendments to much larger legislation, multi-hundred-million bills where her addenda seemed like incremental costs.

You can follow the trails starting for the docks here and the Emerald Necklace here. You'll see that both bills start as they should as much larger appropriations from the House. The Senate gets a shot at putting in their own local pork here and there. The bills change numbers in each chamber as well as in joint conference committees. They emerge with the originals plus the earmarks as amendments.

So, her website claims are literally accurate. On the other hand, if you were a constituent, say devoted to Community Boating, and had been complaining for a decade that your docks were falling into the Chuck River, you'd see it differently. You might want a civics-textbook example of a senator who takes up your noble cause, sponsors a bill, delivers one impassioned oration after another until her fellow legislators were persuaded. Ta da.

Wilkerson's M.O. seems, shall we conclude, less energetic. She is eager to claim credit for bills she voted for or came in as a mass co-sponsor when they were rolling. It is very hard to find any she originates or is lead sponsor for. She has been pretty good at finding places to insert earmarks, not coincidentally, for each of her neighborhoods and major constituencies.

She's a piggypacker

That, of course, is okay, normal, average for legislators. Not everyone is or can be a statesman, orator, leader or in the avant garde. As her website makes plain on every page, she delivers the bacon. Bringing it in the side door is still delivery.

Wilkerson has very fairly developed a reputation as stated in this week's guest column in BW as a consistent vote for good causes. She has not earned a reputation as a leader however.

I'm still waiting for her campaign to reschedule our Left Ahead! podcast. We'd love to give her a forum.

After a few hours following bills to which she has any relation, I suspect that she'd be ahead of the game if she had played it — that is, if she put in the research, analyzed the existing laws, and did the homework on drafting new or altered legislation. I don't see that in the past several legislative sessions. She simply is not a lead sponsor and has not written the laws for which she takes credit by virtue of voting. That is secondary or tertiary credit. She's a piggypacker. Others did the work and where she delivered it bacon, it was as an add-on tucked in the legislation of others.

If I had kept at it long enough, surely I would have come across bills with Wilkerson's name as lead sponsor. There must be one or two. I haven't found them. I want my senator's work to be obvious, significant and frequent.

None the less, the question on my table is what do you owe to the long-term stalwart, the sheriff analog?

Her seemingly unquestioning supporters and endorsers imply that we lefties and progressives are obligated to keep sending her to office as long as she can stay interested (and perhaps out of court and jail). I, very differently, think of the sheriff who no longer has the quick draw or the will to drive out the bad guys. For that class of faded hero, there have been 16 years of salary, much praise and consistent reappointment.

Indeed, that has been Wilkerson's more-than-adequate reward for good service to good causes. We elected her once and re-elected her seven times. That's a lot of reward, security and income. Those do not need to be permanent and perpetual to pay back her votes.

Let's set aside challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz' progressive platform. In fact, she stands alone in Second Suffolk as putting out a platform, while Wilkerson just says keep paying me back for all I've done for you. Instead, look at Wilkerson as the old sheriff who has failed many, many times.

Do we owe her a sinecure, a job without normal demands? Has her past service, with all its distractions and flaws been so noble that we keep her in office perpetually?

I think not.

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