Della and I made Salem, Oregon, our home for nearly 13 years. For all but 2 years of this time, the City Council was controlled by a conservative faction. The liberals and leftists in town had a brief moment in the sun, but it didn't turn out to be as bright as we had anticipated because of one person.
While the conservatives held the reins of power, we on the left had a champion. She was a long-serving councilwoman who was reelected every 4 years by overwhelming majorities. She was so popular, that the conservative faction often didn't field a candidate to oppose her because they had virtually no shot of defeating her.
On issue after issue, our champion held up a progressive vision. Though frequently outnumbered 8 to 1, our champion delivered fiery speeches on the council floor in favor of measures to combat climate change. She railed against those who would deny the prevailing wage to workers on city contracts. She was a devout advocate for affordable housing. And she fought vociferously against the poison of urban sprawl.
Though our side rarely won on these issues and more, you could be absolutely certain that our champion would voice our opinions in no uncertain terms. She was a bulldog who never backed down from a fight.
But then an odd thing happened. Through the tireless efforts of many organizations and individuals, our side took control of the city council. Our mayoral candidate won. My good friend and fellow socialist Bill was elected City Council President. Two other liberals and one Green Party candidate won seats as well. For the first time in what seemed like forever, progressives held a 5 - 4 majority on the City Council.
Now we can get things done, we thought. We had a huge agenda and visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. But a funny thing happened -- something that caught many of us completely off guard. Our 5 - 4 majority fizzled before our eyes because our long-time champion turned out to be a fake one!
On vote after vote, she sided with the conservative minority. She voted for or against measures that, for years, she had stood on the other side of. You see, as long as she knew that the things she PUBLICLY supported were guaranteed to lose, she fought like hell. But when these same measures had a realistic chance of winning or succeeding, she exposed her true colors.
She wasn't our champion at all. She hailed from the most liberal ward in the city and the vast majority of her rhetoric was aimed at appeasing her political base. By appearing to stand for what her supporters stood for, she guaranteed for herself plentiful campaign contributions and votes.
Our "day in the sun" was short-lived as the conservatives regained control of the City Council in only two years time. The only good thing to come out of this election was that our fake champion was unceremoniously defeated in her ward. She garnered LESS THAN 25% of the vote in the primary. Though she tried desperately to whitewash her turncoat behavior, most of her former supporters didn't buy it. Once she showed her true colors, her political demise was sealed. She slunk off into the sunset and disappeared from public life.
I share this sad tale in relation to Ted Rall's latest cartoon (you can see it here). The punchline to the comic is "We only fight for principles when we can't win." This is a tried-and-true strategy of liberals and conservatives alike. Pandering to their base, they appear to fight when they have no chance of winning, but do an about-face when the chips fall in the other direction.
It illustrates that, by and large, the legislative process is more show than anything else.