Wilbur Mills Sunk in the Tidal Basin

Ideas and Issues
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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.