A new litmus test

Published 4:38 pm Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Under the Gold Dome, she was known as a feisty redhead who was smart, hard-working, quick-tempered and knew all the ropes.

She was well connected with the leadership and could get things done. She eventually climbed the rungs of power to become chair of the Education Committee in the House. Twelve times she was re-elected by her district to the Georgia House of Representatives until the Republican growth in north Georgia finally overwhelmed her Democratic background.

Sadly, her story doesn’t end so well. She was indicted last Monday on two counts of income tax evasion. Each count carries a possible sentence if convicted of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. Previously she had a tax lien going back to 1998 for non-payment of state income taxes.

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In addition to her long time public service, Jeanette Jamieson operated a tax return preparation service. That’s right, a powerful long time public servant who made a living preparing taxes failed to report income to the state for 10 different years. Ignorance of the law certainly cannot be a plausible defense in this case.

I have thought about Jeanette a lot during the past week. I wondered why her failing hit me so hard. After all, we can hardly turn on the news without seeing some local, state or national leader falling from the public’s grace because of abuse of their power. We also have to hear repeatedly the sordid details of public officials who have betrayed those in their personal lives, often while at the height of their public power.

In the end, for me personally I think this particular instance is more about trust. I knew Jeanette and held her up as an example of how a lawmaker can be tough and fair at the same time. Partisan and principled.

Trust is not always just something that we routinely convey to another person based on their reputation or connections. Trust is also something that we feel; an emotional connection. It can’t be taught or learned, but it can be earned. It can also be lost.

Perhaps this is why the American public holds politicians in such low regard. I don’t think we should hold politicians to a higher moral standard than we hold each other, unless that politician has hypocritically been speaking and legislating against the very actions of which they are guilty.

Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “It has been the political career of this man to begin with hypocrisy, proceed with arrogance, and finish with contempt.” Surely we have not reached the point where we only have contempt for those that lead us.

I doubt there has been a time in American history when the general population has had such an opportunity to see our leaders in action on so many different crucial fronts. During the World Wars and the Great Depression, the public read newspapers, listened to the radio, and watched newsreels. The content could be easily monitored and measured.

Today, we have passed 24 hour television as the primary news source only to have access to the news on our belt as we tweet our way into information overload. Every politician worth their salt now has a Facebook page, a Twitter page, a Myspace page, and a RSS newsfeed. Perhaps all of this serves to magnify the hypocrisy and arrogance without giving us a real opportunity to judge them by their character, their ideas, their connection to their community and their belief in the things that are really important to us as citizens.

Almost 20 years ago, I was elected to my first public office as a county commissioner. I had been sworn in office less than 24 hours when I had my first attempted bribe. When elected to the General Assembly I promised the voters that I would come home from Atlanta when my service there was going to impact my family or compromise my principles. As time passed I realized that I didn’t hate politics; I hated what politics was asking of me. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite or to allow the arrogance to overtake me. So I came home.

I didn’t want the fact that I was a politician to be what people remembered about me. I didn’t want it to define me as a man, or a member of my family, or a representative of these southwest Georgia counties that I love. At long last, I don’t think that it does.

We have great public servants who are representing us in times far more difficult than anything I ever saw. Most do it in a way that can indeed make us proud. However, my own experience has changed the litmus test questions I will ask of those who want my vote.

Will you represent the interests of the people of my district (or state) without yielding to the pressure of outside interests?

Will you defend your own personal character and personal integrity above all else as you represent others?

Will you fight hypocrisy and arrogance even as all around you put you on a pedestal or ask for your help?

Will you vote for the people rather than your party?

Will you come home when it’s time?