METRO | Steve Russell : Voting for change

I guess my attitude towards elections could be taken as evidence that my purity has been compromised. Maybe the old cat has been belled.

belled cat

Judge Russell: Old belled cat? Photo by Ian Jones / The Telegraph.

By Steve Russell | The Rag Blog | August 27, 2014

“Would you rather vote for what you want and not get it or vote for what you don’t want and get it?” — Ralph Nader

“In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.” — Julian Castro

[This essay by Judge Russell was inspired by and serves as a comradely rejoinder to Austin movement attorney Jim Simons’ recent Rag Blog article, “The 50-year lawyer: Defying the systems of power.”]

AUSTIN — I suppose there’s some biology behind the fact that, at my age, Mr. Castro makes a lot more sense than Mr. Nader. There comes a time when you know you’re not going to get there…but that’s not exactly my case.

I have seen things happen that exceed my wildest expectations — personally, nationally, and internationally. I’ll give you some of each.

Personally, I never expected to go from being an American Indian public school dropout to actually having enough assets to retire rather than, like everybody I could see going before me, working until I dropped. I never expected to move from the underground press to writing op-eds on a national stage, as I do for Indian Country Today Media Network.

Nationally, formal equality for African-Americans seemed like a Holy Grail we’d be unlikely to drink from, but the Civil Rights Movement has long since moved the argument from formal equality to more equal outcomes. A heavier lift, perhaps, but a better place from which to be lifting. And speaking of equality, I was pretty resigned to being an outlier on gay rights (and I suppose I still am in my legal analysis) but the walls are tumbling down with blinding speed. Marijuana decriminalization is the fact in much of the country and legalization is now thinkable.

Internationally, I am gobsmacked over two things in my lifetime. Not that they happened, but that they happened with relatively little violence. Those would be the condign demise of the Great “Socialist” Fraud that was the Soviet Union and the enfranchisement of the black majority in South Africa. Both were bound to happen…but so quickly and with such a small body count?

All this is to deny that my views are completely driven by accumulating years. I’ve thought for a long time, as to “third” political parties, that the task of taking over one of the extant parties presents X amount of difficulty. The task of taking over the government presents X plus Y. The value of Y does not matter if you can’t manage X. I presume the Tea Party’s hostage taking reinforces this analysis just a tiny bit?

Jim Simons did as much as anybody with a law license to shape my legal career.

I’ve read the 50-years-as-a-lawyer recollections of Jim Simons in The Rag Blog. Jim did as much as anybody with a law license to shape my legal career. He defended me when I went to jail over opposition to the Vietnam War. He helped me sue the Austin Police Department to get some breathing space after I faced criminal charges four times in one year for nothing but getting in the face of power. He first chaired my first jury trial, and he helped me try the most important lawsuit in my personal life, which was not criminal and Jim knows the case I mean.

Like Jim, I finally called it quits with the Democratic Party, but I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the divorce. For many years, I gave the Democrats a donation directly out of my bank account, making me a “sustaining member.” I always voted in Democratic primaries, but I always split my general election ticket with honest Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and Socialists. After the Raza Unida Party imploded, I did not work for or contribute to non-Democrats.

Before I gave up on the Democrats, I briefly lurched in the other direction and voted a straight Democratic ticket once. I knew better, but anger clouds judgment.

Anger cast my vote when my son Paul got sent to Iraq over a pack of lies, to fight a war only marginally better than the Vietnam debacle. Well, perhaps more than marginally, in that the U.S. got into Vietnam on the wrong side, not being able to tease out a nationalist tide from a Communist one. In Vietnam, we sided with a Catholic elite that had lorded it over a Buddhist majority in collusion with French colonial masters.

In Iraq, we went to war to depose a monster, but a monster we were happy to support when he was a handy tool. We had no plan to govern the real estate we could have taken in the first Iraq War if it made any sense to take it. It was not in U.S. interests to be there, and it took a lot of imagination to gin up a scenario where it would help Iraqis. Still and all, we did not enter the wrong side of an extant conflict, as in Vietnam. We started one for no rational reason.

So it was that I punched the stupid straight ticket. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, at the time, a mostly Democratic enclave in a mostly Republican state but, unlike Texas, a genuinely two party state. The result of my vote and the votes of persons like me was the defeat of some local Republican office holders who probably, truth be told, would agree with me about the stupidity of the second Iraq War, and who held jobs that were essentially technocratic and in which they conducted themselves in a manner competent, honest, and nonpartisan. Sort of the way I tried to conduct myself as an elected judge in Travis County.

The kind of voting my anger drove had transgressed what would have been my self-interest here in Central Texas. I wanted Republican votes because I could give Republicans a fair trial and I was willing to work as hard as anybody else in the courthouse. Why should I be dumped if, say, Bill Clinton did something stupid?

Of course, I became self-interested when I decided to run for office back in 1974, for the election in 1975. I was not altogether sure that The Rag would endorse me, not because of any hostility to me but rather hostility to the idea of participating in electoral politics.

City of Austin electoral politics got in The Rag first. It wasn’t exactly that we were winning but one race after another was so close you could taste it. Elections on the local level were somehow more real than state or national races. Eventually, the progressives began to prevail on the issues. By the time I ran for county office, The Rag had been doing a better job of covering city politics than the downtown paper for some time.

I did not think I had sold out by standing for office, but I had heard that rap often enough to worry about it.

I did not think I had sold out by standing for office, but I had heard that rap often enough to worry about it.

Now, in the 21st Century, I guess my attitude towards elections could be taken as evidence that my purity has been compromised. Maybe the old cat has been belled. Keep in mind that this old cat has a criminal/political rap sheet as long as anybody likely to be reading these words. Direct action is part of my political DNA.

Those who thought my morph from civil disobedient to candidate was a sellout might feel vindicated when I advocate, as I do now, voting for the least bad candidate in virtually all circumstances. I’ll try to keep people’s interest by giving an example from a race with a lot of sex, if not sex appeal.

If I were living in Louisiana’s fifth Congressional district, I would vote to reelect Vance McAllister, who announced he’s not going to seek reelection but has lately hedged on that decision. l I guess he can’t decide if he’s tired of being “the Kissing Congressman.”

Whoa, Russell, didn’t you incite major ridicule of McAllister in your weekly column?

Of course I did. It’s a humor column, and McAllister had to expect some horselaughs when he ran as more “family values” than thou and got caught having a smoking affair with a married woman before the ink was dry on his oath of office.

If it were not for the hypocrisy factor, I would have been making fun of the people bent out of shape over his affair. Count me among those who would leave it up to the spouse what the penalty ought to be. From the outside, we know nothing about the sexual side of anyone’s marriage.

Anybody who paid attention knew that Bill Clinton had numerous sexual affairs outside his marriage and Hillary tolerated it.

Anybody who paid attention knew that Bill Clinton had numerous sexual affairs outside his marriage and Hillary tolerated it. That was the understanding within their marriage before he became president, and I’m unclear why I should care about it more than his wife did?

Yes, Hillary got majorly bent out of shape about the Lewinski affair, but that was because Bill lied to her. He set her up to say something in public he knew was not true. It’s probably as close as she ever came to giving him the heave-ho.

So, Clinton gets impeached for lying about the affair, but the public commonly takes it to be about the affair itself, thanks to all the honking about “family values.” The loudest honker was the trail boss of the impeachment resolution, Newt Gingrich, who at the time was cheating on his wife.

In addition to the “family values” hypocrites, there are the Larry Craig and Mark Foley style hypocrites, who denounce gay sex and get caught seeking gay sex. Openly gay public officials, Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, did not get hurt by gay relationships being revealed. Until the last couple of years, violation of marriage vows could seldom be an issue for gay people, since they were denied the opportunity to take those vows. Bisexuals would occasionally transgress their traditional marriage vows, as appeared to be the case with former Senator Craig (still married) and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey (two wives, two children).

What I’m looking for in a sexual scandal is an intersection with public policy, and by that I mean something beyond the bare theory that a person having an affair could be blackmailed. Anybody can be blackmailed about something.

Did John F. Kennedy marry the French educated Jacqueline Bouvier because he was planning to fool around? Who knows, but plainly JFK’s wife was playing by European rules,  which generally hold that in any showdown between wife and girlfriend, the wife wins. The husband has a duty not to rub the wife’s nose in it. In those days, reporters did not generally rub the public’s nose in it, either.

In my tribal nation, former Chief Chad Smith, who is gearing up to run again, was shown to have two whole families, with children by both wife and girlfriend. This is not a choice I would make but neither is it my business if the women involved choose to tolerate it. If Smith ever played the family values hypocrite, it escaped my notice, but I admit that hypocrisy would have influenced my vote.

So why could I hold my nose hard enough to vote for McAllister the hypocrite, who is also a rich and conservative Republican, when I don’t happen to be rich or conservative or Republican? Because he and his opponents are not equally awful and no righteous candidate would have a prayer. Abstention is rational only when candidates are equal.

The Louisiana Fifth is a low education, low information district, which means in a Confederate state it will be represented by a Republican. Some low education, low information districts in inner cities are represented by Democrats of questionable probity, lest this remark be construed as partisan.

In the Confederacy, one necessary question is whether the particular conservative Republican on offer is a flaming racist.

In the Confederacy, one necessary question is whether the particular conservative Republican on offer is a flaming racist. This is a particularly serious question for Indians, because most of the laws used to keep blacks down in the bad old days also applied to Indians, and the general rule is that anybody who thinks skin color is politically significant is not going to be doing tribal peoples any favors. McAllister is not considered, among the considerable black population in the district, to be a flaming racist.

Then there is a complex of issues that come under the modern rubric “war on women.” That meme represents very specific policy positions, all of which run contra to where The Rag stood back in the day:

  • Women should not get equal pay for equal work.
  • The Violence Against Women Act should not be federal law, but rather left to the states.
  • The decision to abort a pregnancy should be in the hands of the government.
  • Birth control should not be part of the minimum acceptable health insurance policy under Obamacare, and Obamacare should be repealed, anyway.
  • Sex education in the public schools should be limited to “don’t.”
  • The federal government has no role in providing universal pre-K education and the Head Start program should be dialed back because it’s too expensive.

Some folks would add the federal minimum wage to this list, because most minimum wage workers are women, but we are talking about rural Louisiana here, so let’s not go crazy.

McAllister is probably wrong on most of these issues, but he has a pragmatic streak that leads him, for example, to say that as long as Obamacare exists, then it ought to be used to benefit the people he represents. Therefore, he supports the expansion of Medicaid at federal expense.

McAllister has also been critical of the so-called Hastert Rule, under which GOP House Speaker John Boehner will generally not allow anything to come to a vote in the House that does not have the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. This has been the death of immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage, to name two measures that could pass with both Democratic and Republican votes if Speaker Boehner would allow a vote to happen.

How does McAllister get away with this? He was elected with his own money, and he was elected in the first place over the opposition of both the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. This makes him the loosest of loose cannons, and this is why the Republican leadership was quick to call for his resignation over canoodling with a staffer while they cheerfully continue to goosestep behind Sen. David Vitter, the “family values” man who employed hookers according to trick lists made public and has not only remained in office, but is in line to succeed term-limited Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Isn’t McAllister dangerous? I suppose so, but how dangerous could he be when his seniority is 429 of 432? He’s not going to accomplish anything and he openly says he despises Washington, which he claims to have never visited before being elected to Congress. It seems to escape these professional anti-establishmentarians that disdain for power in the abstract is like disdain for hammers in the abstract…harmless until the day you need to drive a nail — exactly the argument I used to make for voting. The decisions won’t go away if you choose not to help select the person who makes the decisions.

Wasn’t McAllister the Duck Dynasty candidate? He was, and the only news McAllister has made in Congress (not involving sex) was when he invited Star Duck Willie Robertson to the State of the Union Address. But now it appears the Duck gang will field a new family candidate, Zach Dasher, and the voters will have to determine who quacks like a Congressduck. Dasher is opposed to expanding Medicaid to the people in his district because “I would not support anything that keeps people on government programs.”

I am not informed how many people in the Louisiana Fifth get Social Security or food stamps or who bought their homes with FHA loans but I’m sure that, if elected, Congressman Dasher would come after their freeloading asses. See how McAllister can begin to look less than as horrible as a Congressman could be?

To summarize: if I lived in a district that was certain to be represented by a conservative Republican, I would prefer one who is not a flagrant racist and is not beholden to either the Tea Party or the GOP establishment. I am agnostic on candidates beholden to Duck Dynasty, as I’ve never seen the show. I am not inclined to police whether my representative is getting in the pants of his female staffers — or his male staffers, for that matter — unless he uses the power of his office to do it. Therefore, I hope the Kissing Congressman does not ride off into the sunset.

Barack Obama will ride off into the sunset, and I read of his sins so often in The Rag Blog that lots of folks may be saying “Good riddance!” and giving Obama as an example of the futility in voting.


I say Obama, who recently polled as the worst POTUS of modern times, will go down in history as one of the best.

I say Obama, who recently polled as the worst POTUS of modern times, will go down in history as one of the best. Obama has delivered on promises that, when made, nobody believed were really possible. Those of us who voted for him realistically only expected his best efforts, not results.

Obama promised to double renewable energy production in three years. Now, that’s classic campaign puffing. But wind capacity has tripled and solar is up by a factor of 16. As they say in the stock market, under promise and over perform — if you can.

He promised to bring us out of the Great Recession, and if one thing turned the election, it was the contrast in how Obama pivoted to the issue nobody anticipated and how McCain did not. McCain “suspended” his campaign, and then invited himself to a Washington meeting on the crisis to which he showed up with no ideas and said nothing, while his principal economic advisor described Americans as “a nation of whiners.”

As a matter of simple arithmetic, the economic stimulus the Blue Dog Democrats allowed Obama to have was inadequate, and that was the stimulus for me to quit the Democratic Party. I cannot countenance political opposition to arithmetic.

Still, private job creation turned right around, while the recovery was substantially hobbled by cuts in government spending at exactly the wrong time. If you don’t like the speed of the recovery, go back over the quarterly jobs reports and add the government jobs back in to see what might have been in a rational policy world.

Obama promised to do more than had been done about climate change, an easier promise to keep if he did anything at all. The state of the policy debate was that the left (including me) supported a carbon tax and the right countered with cap and trade. When Mitch McConnell adopted the “No!” strategy and got the votes to enforce it with a Republican upset in Massachusetts, both options appeared off the table.

However, we are going to see the EPA adopt carbon pollution standards, and that will de facto attach a price to carbon emissions. The question for government will then be whether to regulate the price or let it grow willy-nilly with no chance for trading. This is not efficient, but it is action on what is arguably the greatest security threat to the U.S. and the world.

Finally, the U.S. is on the way to joining every other industrialized nation in guaranteeing a minimal standard of health care, albeit with a conservative reform that accepted the inefficiency of leaving the entire system in private hands, a paradigm practiced in only one nation besides the US. That would be Switzerland, and we could talk about the reasons why it works in Switzerland…but it still adds costs.

I recall that some contributors to The Rag Blog advocated voting against the Affordable Care Act, arguing that it was worse than nothing.

The number of uninsured Americans has dropped from 18% to 13 and a half and would be in single digits but for the GOP governors who would not expand Medicaid out of spite. The differing death rates will make that position politically untenable over time.

At the same time, the inflation rate for health care went under the general inflation rate for the first extended period since the fifties.

With more people getting health care and the price curve for health care running contra the long standing trend, Obama will eventually get credit for accomplishing a goal first set by the Republican T. Roosevelt and part of every Democratic platform since 1948.

All of this was accomplished in the face of opposition with which no POTUS since WWII has had to contend. This is not opinion. This, once more, is arithmetic. The number of filibusters. The number of busted nominations. The number of vacant executive positions. Budget cuts made explicitly to frustrate policy.

Obama’s foreign policy legacy may or may not last, and the silly “surge” in Afghanistan is a bit of futility that represents Obama caving to the generals. The neocons fault him for withdrawing from Iraq, but the voters do not and history will not. The neocons fault him for setting a date to get out of Afghanistan, but the voters do not and history will not.

The “Russia reset” plainly didn’t happen, and the right wing media machine continually asserts that Mr. Obama lacks the chest hair of Mr. Putin.

Relations with the Muslim world have gone south after the hopeful beginning in Cairo.

Still, the only way a POTUS gets remembered for foreign policy is if he causes a complete disaster. Vietnam derailed LBJ. The Iran hostage crisis conspired with a soft economy to send Jimmy Carter back to Georgia.

Obama’s speech upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize was a defense of “just war,” and so was a bit of outlandish risk-taking in the service of sanity that will grow in significance over time.

Similarly, his campaign speech about race, delivered in Philadelphia, will rank in any collection of great speeches by U.S. Presidents.

Both of those speeches were written primarily by Mr. Obama, and in the case of the Nobel speech finished on the plane as he traveled to deliver it. Historians love eloquence. It is eloquence that marks the 1,000 days JFK spent at 1600 Pennsylvania and makes him appear equal to LBJ, which was true in aspiration but not in result.

I do not think the NSA revelations or the drone wars have historical legs. The former is a trend bigger than any POTUS or any nation, and the latter is both legal and sensible in relation to the alternatives. The canard about killing Americans without due process is just that. A law enforcement officer who has probable cause to believe that an individual is a violent felon who cannot be safely taken into custody may kill that person. The only hitch was the secrecy of the kill list, but every American targeted has had a well known public profile, which is why we’ve had this conversation.

The “pattern strikes” are more troublesome, in terms of both legality and consequences. It’s true that Obama has been slow to clean up this practice or even — very much more troublesome — make enough information public so we can have a public discussion.

In all of the Bush II administration and the front end of the Obama administration, the U.S. government did not even admit that the drone program existed, which tended to, ahem, inhibit the policy debate as well as keep the lawsuits away. Now that the debate is moving forward, and now that other countries are catching up in the drone race, decisions will finally get made by a broader constituency. Obama presided at the front of that process, but will not be around for the outcome. Whatever the outcome, the shape of future battlefields has changed and Barack Obama will not come out appearing to be the Prince of Darkness.

The faux scandals — Fast & Furious, Benghazi, and the IRS — will come out in the wash, as they already have for everybody who does not move their lips when reading.

In the real scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Obama will go down as the fixer, not the perp. This is the POTUS who engineered the biggest increase in funding for veterans’ medical care in history before the scandal and cleaned house after.

If Obama serves his last year with no serious errors, history will judge that he accomplished more with less than any POTUS since FDR. He made big progress on big issues that are bigger than one man, and over time the numbers will become more important than the media spin machine. That’s how history gets written — after the noise dies down and persons who did not personally know the players count the numbers coldly.

So, to recycle a slogan that drove my first campaign and many others in Austin: Vote for a change.

So, to recycle a slogan that drove my first campaign and many others in Austin: Vote for a change.

No matter what kind of direct action you advocate, how much trouble is it to show up and vote, assuming you didn’t get disenfranchised by the voter ID laws? And, by the way, if voting did not matter, why would they try to shut it down?

All progress is relative, and there’s no question we have a long way to go. Let’s not forget the distance we’ve come, one step at a time, only some of those steps being elections. “Vote for a change” means incremental change because all change is incremental.

Taking over the Democratic Party is worth the effort it would take. The fact that I’ve given up on it is, I confess, driven by the realization that my age limits the impact I can have and the incremental changes I’ve made in political life entitle me to have some fun now. Governing was hard, and not always fun. Punditry is fun, and as simple as strolling to the political battlefield and shooting the survivors.

Jim Simons and I have in common that we are unlikely to fire at anybody going in a progressive direction at their own pace and that we got our punditry licenses the old fashioned way. We earned them.

Read more articles by Steve Russell on The Rag Blog.

[Steve Russell lives in Sun City, Texas, near Austin. He is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Steve was an activist in Austin in the sixties and seventies, and wrote for Austin’s underground paper, The Rag. Steve, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is also a columnist for Indian Country Today. He can be reached at ]

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3 Responses to METRO | Steve Russell : Voting for change

  1. Nancy Simons says:

    Vote for a real change. She’s on the ballot:

  2. Sankarshan Das (aka Steve Bridge) says:

    Steve, are you the author of “Krishnas Harried” in the 6 Sep 1971 issue of the Rag?

  3. No. That article as I remember was written by another Steve that was staff writer for the Rag. Cool poetic title. The cops came because complaints about our ceremony, but when they found that the Mayor was attending the function, they had nothing to say. The mayor sent them on their way.

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