MAXWELL:  POLITICS IN BLACK, WHITE & GREEN

5/17/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

In their first legislative session since Willie Logan was unceremoniously dumped by Florida House Democrats as their candidate for speaker, black Democrats and white Republicans gave new meaning to the politics of quid pro quo.

This new spirit of cooperation could be seen at a recent event in Fort Lauderdale to raise money for a group that helps black children, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush and state Rep. Logan, D-Opa-Locka, discussed issues important to black communities. After the fund-raiser, Logan described his political approach in these terms: “The African-American community has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests.”

Logan was referring, of course, to the millions of dollars in pet projects that he and other black Democrats won from white Republicans this past legislative session in return for their support of several GOP initiatives. Such comments and the GOP’s new generosity have many white and black Democratic loyalists wondering if we are not watching a rather tawdry relationship develop, a union between political pimps and prostitutes. Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, is not reassuring in her immediate response: “We certainly aren’t the latter.”

Perhaps not. But if they are not whores who are selling out to the most generous johns, black Democrats have at least lost sight of political reality, suggests U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami. As they grab for money, Meek says, black lawmakers have forgotten who their real friends are.

Politics indeed is an art that requires the players to give and take and make deals _ even to on occasion hop in bed with the enemy. But Logan is wrong to suggest that blacks do not need permanent friends. To have no permanent friends, to sell only to the highest bidder, is to lack a sense of loyalty. It is to be untrustworthy, perhaps unethical. This cynical philosophy ill-serves black Floridians, making them appear as unprincipled as some of the white Republicans who have traditionally held them in contempt.

“As I consider for whom I will vote, I ask, will it be for someone who opposes equal opportunity?” Meek says. “Will it be for someone who advocates school vouchers, which would rip apart our public schools? Will it be for someone who has never stood with us in the past? Will it be for someone with the gall to use racist ads to appeal to the worst fears of whites? Will it be for someone who, when asked what he will do for African-Americans if elected governor, answered “probably nothing’? (See Bush, Jeb!) Will it be for someone who opposed voting rights, opposed desegregation, opposed anti-discrimination laws?”

Logan, who got $90,000 for the train station in his hometown, disagrees. He believes blacks must stop voting along party lines.

“I think that if everybody knew that we were going to be for Buddy MacKay,” Logan says, “that we are going to vote for whomever the Democrats gave us no matter who they are or what they stand for, then the Democrats would be ignoring us and so would the Republicans. I just think it’s time that we be a little bit more sophisticated in selecting our leaders and the things we’re going to support.

“I’m not going to try to judge whether this is a long-term or a short-term alliance with the Republicans. It could be a one-night stand. Obviously, we’ll soon find out as we go into the 1998-99 legislative term. I’m not looking for permanent friends.”

No matter how they dress up their political intentions, Logan and other black Democrats have cynically swapped principle and the moral high road for cash. They, too, are in a feeding frenzy at the trough. Many of their projects are more symbolic than substantive. While making themselves temporarily popular among black powerbrokers and leaders of organizations, they are doing little to help improve life for large numbers of their constituents.

The legislative decision to pay Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee $1.5-million apiece is a prime example of a costly measure that consumed considerable time and attention but helps only two people. Granted, these black men, who spent 12 years on death row for murders they did not commit, deserve compensation. But no one should claim that the interests of African-Americans in general have been served.

The bottom line is that a huge surplus of money was available, and the GOP had no trouble rewarding black Democrats supportive of GOP causes.

In courting Logan, who is now the best-known black Democrat in the state, white Republicans were generous. During the last days of the session, for example, Republicans helped Logan tuck $5-million into the state budget for a building to be constructed at historically black Florida Memorial College _ a private, Baptist-affiliated campus north of Miami. He had the blessings of Republicans only too glad to exploit the disaffection of black Democrats.

Although the building will belong to nearby Florida International University, Florida Memorial, which has only 1,500 students, will operate and maintain it, and can someday purchase it from FIU. Ironically, FIU did not ask for the building and does not know what to do with it. But these facts did not deter Logan and the GOP from making dubious history: This is the first time that Public Education Capital Outlay money, culled from taxes on utilities, will be used to construct a building on a private campus.

How does Logan justify a taxpayer-funded building at a private college?

“We tried to get FIU to come up with satellite office in northwest Dade for years, and they refused to do it,” he says. “The Board of Regents refused to look at it. People in this area should not have to go all the way to Kendall or Surfside or Miami Beach to attend a state, urban university. It should be in the inner city area, or at least they should have satellite campuses. This forces FIU to give courses in our community.”

But many state leaders, including State University System Chancellor Adam Herbert, worry that the FIU/FMC venture will cause trouble. “The precedent is of great concern to me,” Herbert says. “I”m not opposed to Florida Memorial being enhanced. But the money is from the Public Education Outlay Fund. We have a demand for space in the public universities we cannot meet.”

The value of many other such pet projects this year is questionable because tax dollars are being given to organizations claiming to do good through the trickle-down process. Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, for instance, got $200,000 for a YMCA teen program based in Jacksonville. Kendrick Meek of Miami got $150,000 for 100 Black Men of Florida, which claims to help juveniles. And Urban League branches statewide received money to fight black-on-black crime, even though taxpayers have no proof they are getting their money’s worth.

Cynthia Chestnut, denying that she cozied up to Republicans to fund her pet projects, says she has not abandoned her “core values.” Her programs _ the Teen OUTLET Council Training Institute, which received $100,000; the Fifth Avenue Cultural Arts After School Program, $10,000; the Powerful Elders Mentoring Program, $10,000; and the Board of Regents Study on Race Relations, $100,000 _ are viable and serve the community. But do taxpayers know that their money is being well-spent? They must accept Chestnut’s claims.

Logan argues that, not counting the FIU building, only about 10 percent of the millions appropriated for black Democrats went for pork and turkeys. He acknowledges, though, that many of the statues, festivals, street beautifications and some building renovations qualify as pork.

But like Chestnut, Logan rejects notions that he has compromised his principles by aligning with Republicans. He has been crisscrossing the state touting the new GOP/Black Caucus alliance. He has met with Jeb Bush, and will be meeting with him again. He believes that he and other black Democrats need to help Bush, who probably will be the next governor, moderate his positions on issues important to their constituents.

“It’s irrelevant whether we’re Democrat or Republican,” Logan says. “If anybody were to suggest that we are selling out because we are getting help on the issues that are important to us, then I admit that I am selling out. That’s the kind of practical politics I see myself doing over the next couple of years. And I will be selling out.”

Carrie Meek is incredulous: “Having observed both parties and their actions and their policies, I am positively sure that African-Americans should not support the Republican Party because the Republican Party has not supported our best interests. Please do not be fooled by recent overtures of the Republican Party to reach out to African-Americans. Look at their records. Actions speak louder than words.”

Indeed, the new “show me the money” mantra of black Democrats has made them no better than others in Tallahassee. While a Buzz Ritchie can bring home the pork to a neighborhood virtually free of crime, a Logan, of crime-plagued Opa-Loka, has no such luxury. He, along with others, needs solid efforts that will help reduce problems such as teen pregnancy, the spread of AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, poor performance in school, infant mortality and spouse abuse. Each is a crisis that is destroying black society.

If black politicians must grab money, they should grab it to find real solutions, not for pet projects and symbols. Because conditions are so serious in many of their districts, they cannot afford to waste any tax dollars.