Where there is no vision, there is no hope.
— George Washington Carver
I’ll go ahead and get the full disclosure out of the way right up front: State Rep. Patricia Todd is a friend of mine. She’s been a friend since early in 2006, when on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance, she asked me to manage the campaign that ultimately got her elected as the representative from House District 54. She won re-election in 2010 without opposition — a point worth noting here, given some of the other things I’m about to tell you.
That first campaign was remarkable in numerous ways, not all of which I will go into here. Not least among its remarkable qualities, of course, was that her win in 2006 made her the first openly gay elected official in Alabama history. Also significant was the fact that she was a white candidate who won an extremely hard-fought campaign in a majority-black district. Whether this outcome was fortunate or unfortunate depends upon one’s view of whether, or to what extent, race should be a factor in determining how one’s vote is cast in any given election.
Most remarkable of all was the way in which the basic assumption at the core of the campaign was transformed from an abstract idea to a living, breathing manifestation of hope and belief and principle. It started with the candidate herself, spread to the campaign staff and volunteers and ultimately took hold with voters.
Strong, safe neighborhoods and strong, healthy families. This was the slogan on which the campaign was launched, and as a slogan, it made a good deal of sense. District 54 stretches from Gate City to Woodlawn to Highland Park, and from Crestwood and Forest Park through downtown to Enon Ridge and Druid Hills. It includes a couple of the wealthier zip codes in the city and several of the poorest, and the slogan was, as slogans are, calculated to span the full range of economic and demographic delineations.
As Todd crisscrossed the district, however — traversing the endless succession of neighborhood forums, group meetings, church- and school-sponsored events, and living room receptions that are the bread and butter of local politics, but which to the uninitiated can seem as daunting as the Bataan Death March — and as she met and listened to the people whose votes she was asking for, she became energized by a realization that went far beyond sloganeering. I’ll never forget the evening of a long day on the trail when, sitting down for the first time in several hours, she looked at me and uttered the five words that became a mantra for the days and weeks ahead, and the foundation on which she has built her efforts as a legislator.
“This campaign,” she said, “is about poverty.”
I relate all of this as background for my reaction to a news release that reached my email inbox Monday afternoon, sent to me by a third party several hours after the event in question had occurred. The release announced a news conference in Kelly Ingram Park, organized jointly by Birmingham Citizens Advisory Board President Sheila Tyson and a group called the Committee to Develop Birmingham. The purpose of the news conference was to deliver a broadside against Rep. Todd for having referred to fellow legislators John Rogers and Mary Moore as “rogue representatives” — or, as the release had it, “rouge representatives,” perhaps indicating that one thing the committee should develop is some acumen for proofreading — for their introduction of racial rhetoric into the ongoing debate over the conflict that has led to the takeover of the Birmingham City Schools by the State of Alabama.
Rep. Todd is a Caucasian representative who was elected to a predominantly African-American District, the news release read. Rep. Todd has consistently voted with the Republicans in the Jefferson County legislative delegation and consistently against the interests of her African-American constituents.
The release went on to refer to Todd’s “unmitigated gall” in hanging the label of rogue on the two black representatives — one of whom (Moore), it should be recalled, has received some attention lately not for her legislative achievements, but for using part of her time at a public meeting to refer to Birmingham News education reporter Marie Leech as “retarded.” The release also called on the other black representatives in the county delegation to repudiate Todd’s remarks.
To their credit, none of Todd’s colleagues took the bait. This was perhaps because they realized the utter, transparent idiocy of the charges leveled at Todd, not least of which was the implication that “rogue” is some kind of racist characterization.
Perhaps it also was because her fellow legislators — at least those who take the time to legislate — recognize that, contrary to the convoluted words of the release from Tyson and the Committee to Develop Birmingham, Todd has done much to serve her entire district — and to live up to her own declaration that her focus as a legislator would be on alleviating poverty.
And that’s really what it should be all about — for Todd, for Rogers, for Moore, for every person who is elected to serve the public. Alabama is one of the poorest states in the Union, and until our elected officials come together to address that instead of finding new ways to play on the fears, prejudices and insecurities that have kept our electorate perpetually divided — until events like the political charade played out Monday in Kelly Ingram Park go the way of Bull Connor and Jim Crow — that’s never going to change.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. You can write to him at email@example.com.