Republican Resistance, State by State

voter suppression republican resistance grassroots organizingFebruary 26, 2021

Little Rock      After four years of Twitter torture, I understand how people seem to be following every little cough and sneeze in Washington these days, crossing their fingers for this appointment, that bill, friends with other countries, smiles and not spits at collaborations around peace, climate, and more. Even when not exactly winning, it’s a relief. At the same time, make no mistake, if there was a call to join the resistance after Trump’s election, there is already an embedded resistance from Republicans in legislatures from state to state that is powerful and dangerous without bothering to knit pink hats or hit the street. It is easy to find examples of these grassroots political struggles everywhere.

In Georgia recently, I listened to reporters and lobbyists debating the range of voter repression bills introduced and moving through the legislature there. A bill that had advanced the farthest required a photocopy of a voter’s identification to secure a mail ballot, rather than simply having their signature matched to their voter registration was seen as a win, despite the burden it would put on poorer families without easy access to a copy machine who would be discouraged and disenfranchised. One after another talked about the fact that they could live with this, if this were the worst that emerged from the session. It wasn’t the old story about settling for half a loaf, but more a situation where they were arguing it was a deep wound, but not a fatal blow. Other bills in the hopper were even more draconian. There was a lot of discussion about when the crossover date might hit, when a bill had to move from one house to the other in order to have a chance to pass in the mandated limit for a forty-day session, hoping that some of the bad lot would die on the hard flip of the calendar.

In Arkansas, a board meeting for the radio station began with a heads up from one of our members that a bill had been introduced to make any collective bargaining or union recognition of public employees illegal. Mind you, there is no procedure that allows unions to be recognized now, whether local employees or state workers. For the most part, it just isn’t done. On the other hand, even though as rare as hen’s teeth, there are some limited agreements for city workers in Little Rock and for some school teachers here and there. Given the polarizing fights, place to place, about reopening schools, along with the rest of the economy, in Arkansas, just as elsewhere, the real target of this legislation it to get rid of any semblance of school workers ability to stand in the way.

There are close to 200 voting bills introduced in legislatures around the country to suppress the vote. Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, one state after another, the examples are legion. The fights to just take the wounds, as long as they don’t kill, are happening at the grassroots level everywhere. We have to be careful that in keeping an eye on Washington, we don’t end up with worse trouble right under our noses and close to home.

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Wilbur Mills Sunk in the Tidal Basin

wilbur mills fanne foxe welfare ways and means committee NWRO

February 25, 2021

Little Rock      Wilbur Mills moved me to Arkansas in 1970. He didn’t reach out and offer me a job to work for him or anything like that. Quite the opposite. George Wiley asked me to move from Massachusetts, where I was the head organizer of the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Welfare Rights Organization, to work against Wilbur Mills.

Wiley was the director and founder of NWRO and he, his team, and leadership had concocted a “Southern Strategy” to try and increase welfare benefits for oppressed and impoverished families and individuals. They saw two major obstacles to justice for recipients. One was Louisiana Senator Russell Long, head of the Senate Finance Committee, and the other was Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills, head of what then was the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee. I had gone to high school in Louisiana, and wasn’t going back there, but I had never been to Arkansas, so why not.

Mills was an institution in 1970, having been in Congress then for thirty-two years. His reputedly encyclopedic knowledge of the tax code and the rules and regs of welfare and medical programs meant that any change in federal support for welfare benefits would start or stop in his committee. It might die in Senate Finance, but it had to give birth in House Ways and Means. I made a deal with George to build ACORN, but my mission in NWRO’s book that powered that experiment was whether we could put pressure in Arkansas on Mills to bring change to welfare rules.

If Mills brought me to Arkansas, in some ways Fanne Foxe, who passed away recently at 84 in Tampa, Florida, allowed me to leave the state in 1978. An episode that counted as a sex scandal in 1974 involving Mills and Foxe effectively ended Mills political career. His car was pulled over past the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Foxe panicked and ran for it, jumping into the Tidal Basin, where police arrested her, and then found Mills and others in the car, drunk. It was a big deal then. I should mention that Foxe was a neighbor of Mills and his wife in the Watergate Apartments, and more importantly at the time, she was a stripper. Mills checked into an alcohol rehab clinic. Mills ran and won a nineteenth term in Arkansas, but didn’t run after that; his time in the sun was over. Foxe’s career on the other hand exploded. The next time Arkansas was politically significant was the presidential election of Governor Bill Clinton, but that’s another story. By then, ACORN was established and had different weight, but the welfare situation had politically deteriorated, and we couldn’t move him.

Fast forward more than forty years and President Trump’s escapade with a stripper was just one of many, and his and voters paid it no never mind, even the hardcore Bible-thumping ranks of the evangelicals. In the days of Mills and Gary Hart, getting caught was something, even though the Capitol police, knowing his power, never charged Mills with anything and drove all parties home after the drunken dunking episode. Case closed. These days, at most there would have been a contrite press conference, wife included, a visit to rehab, and the big wheels would keep on rolling in many cases.

Who says nothing has changed? It has definitely gotten better for most politicians and their peccadillos, even though they constantly whine about the fact that the press and police more often report these offenses than they once did. On the other hand, in every way, it has gotten worse for welfare recipients.

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