James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Why a 'decent' congressman must go

Years ago, over my objections, I was assigned to review a concert by Ella Fitzgerald.

She was one of the few singers I truly admired as an artist, and I liked her, personally, a great deal. But I knew her voice was largely gone by the time of that concert. I suggested that the newspaper skip the show, as it did and does so many others. The boss insisted I do the review, however, and I did it honestly, deeply regretting the necessity of saying what had to be said.

I have much the same feeling today, writing this piece.

Most politicians, like some athletes and a great many singers, hang on too long after their talents or strength, if any, have faded. Some just get lazy, and come to view their offices as sinecures, theirs to hold by something akin to divine right.

(Yes, of course, a growing, shameful number view public office as a hog wallow right from the start, as demonstrated by the Republican Congressional leadership of recent years, but it's not anything close to a majority as yet.)

My own Congressman, Martin Sabo, is one of those who should, but will not, retire gracefully. He's one of many, I fear.

Marty, as he is known to everyone in Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District – Minneapolis and pieces of some inner ring suburbs – has been in Congress 28 years. He has done nothing anyone I know can point to, except to vote, in at least a decade, and probably much longer.

An awkward speaker, he rarely appears before a television camera, and even newspaper interviews with him are extremely rare. I sometimes wonder if any reporter in the Twin Cities has his telephone number or whether they simply feel it's not worth the trouble to call him.

Other than a franked newsletter once or twice a year, his constituents hardly ever hear from him, and those newsletters are as lacking in content as an hour of committee testimony by Alberto Gonzales. They tend to tick off, in rather gentle language, Republican sins of which the great majority of his constituents already are very aware – and much less kind in describing.

He comes out of hiding every two years – election years – but is rarely seen in any one place for more than a few minutes and almost never speaks more than three or four sentences.

On Feb. 1, a day in which the nominal president, G.W. Bush, appeared at 3M Company headquarters near St. Paul to pat money guys on the head, a short article under Marty's name appeared on the op-ed page of the Star Tribune. It made many loyal Democrats, and former Democrats, shake their heads in sadness.

Marty, or whatever staffer wrote the thing, ticked off some of the best-known facts about Bush Administration perfidy: The number of dead and wounded in Iraq, the dollar cost of the Iraq war, the massive cuts to social and education services in the Bush budget. It said Americans “yearn” for honesty from Bush and concluded by calling on Bush to “muster the honesty, integrity and leadership to level with Americans about Iraq.”

As if.

Hillary Swank, now many months out of the training she did for “Million Dollar Baby,” could deliver more punch with one hand tied behind her back.

It was a typically inadequate Sabo performance.

Several weeks ago, as I write this, the congressman appeared for what was billed as a “town meeting” or some such, supposedly to listen to the thoughts of his constituents. He spoke for no more than five minutes and declined to answer questions from the floor, ostensibly so that he could listen to what the people in the audience had to say. In fact, it was another typical Sabo gambit – a way of avoiding having to say anything himself.

The one thing that he did say that made me, and some others seated near me, groan audibly, was the statement that “Politics are about winning elections.”

That's the theme this year of the Republican Lites – the people who continue to argue that Democrats need “centrist” (read without core values) candidates and that we mustn't offend the big money people.

Sabo is regarded by some within his district as a Democratic saint, although given the disgust and anger expressed by roughly half the folks who spoke at that January meeting, and by subsequent events, that may be changing. Perhaps changing rapidly. Party functionaries continue to curtsy when he walks into a room, and genuflect whenever his name is mentioned, but voters are beginning to show their doubts.

Sainthood was granted because Marty reliably votes correctly. Judged by votes alone, he is a genuine liberal, and that counts for a good deal in today's corrupt Congress. It also is widely, and undoubtedly truly, said that he is “a decent man.”

But here's the thing:

Voting right isn't enough under present circumstances. Especially, it's not enough if you're talking about somebody in a safe seat who needn't fear a challenge from the right nor worry about lacking the money to run a solid campaign.

With little effort, Marty pulls in so much money that he regularly gives large hunks of his campaign treasury to other candidates around the country. (I stopped donating years ago; I don't like some of the candidates he supports with Minnesota money.) He couldn't lose an election against a Republican or member of any other party if he was caught robbing a convenience store in the company of a teenage mistress. His may be the safest Democratic congressional seat in the country.

Given that, the person representing Minneapolis and its nearest burbs should be a powerful voice for liberal positions, a fighter for progressive values and against the cheats, liars and crooks who are in control.

His seat should be occupied for someone who will fight against the war and those who lied to the public to get it started, and against the torturers and thieves. The Congressperson from Minneapolis should fight for justice for people who work for a living and against the transfer of most of the country's power and wealth to the handful of super rich who are represented by the Bush crowd and their allies in Congress. He or she should be raising hell over the deterioration of our health care and educational systems and the fact that corporations are screwing their retirees with the blessing of the Bushies. He should be showing and telling everyone how the Bush bunch is distorting and ruining the U.S. economy.

In short, the member from the Fifth District of Minnesota should represent the people of that district.

Marty fell asleep years ago, and it doesn't appear that anything can wake him. I know from friends and family around the country that he is not only Democratic sleepwalker in Congress. The question is who, if anyone, has the guts to make them step aside?

(Next: A budding challenge to Sabo that just might work.)