Spencer Bachus and Scott Beason just can’t help themselves. Whenever they try, they just wind up helping others, instead — but not the people they mean to.
Let’s start with Bachus. As has now been pretty well documented, the congressman for the 6th Congressional District tried to make himself richer than he already was by doing something a lot of people would consider un-American — betting against the economy — and also something a lot of people would consider unethical — trading on non public material information.
While serving on the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, Bachus invested in railroads. While serving on the House Financial Services Committee, Bachus made investments shorting the economy overall and also cashed out options he had on General Electric stock. The congressman has called his investments a hobby and argued that all of the information he gained from the meetings was easily accessible by the public, even though the meetings themselves were held behind closed doors. While Bachus has insisted his investing was above boards and ethical, he stopped after he became chairman of the Financial Services Committee and after media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, began asking questions.
Then came the book that brought the scandal. Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer examined Bachus’s trading, as well as other lawmakers. But it drew particular attention to the reluctance of lawmakers to make a law against what they were doing. Bachus called the book an inaccurate smear piece, but again, he had a piece of secret knowledge that he wasn’t sharing — that since last year he had been under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. It’s the first such investigation conducted by the office since it was created to police lawmakers in 2009. Last week, the Washington Post made public that little nugget of news and Bachus’ political scandal was stoked again. If the OCE finds sufficient evidence of wrong-doing, it will refer the case to the House Ethics Committee.
“I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. I respect the congressional ethics process. I have fully abided by the rules governing members of Congress and look forward to the full exoneration this process will provide,” Bachus said.
The news could not come at a worse time for Bachus. For the first time since taking office, he’s facing a serious challenge for his seat. The scandal hasn’t killed Bachus’ chances for reelection yet, but the potential is there. A poll conducted on behalf of an anti-incumbent super-PAC shows Bachus still has a commanding lead over Beason. In a straight-up head-to-head, Bachus has 63 percent versus Beason’s 17 percent. However, after the pollsters asked respondents whether Bachus’ ties to Wall Street and accusations of insider trading would affect their opinions, Bachus’ support dropped to 44 percent and Beason rose to 21 percent.
Also, the poll was conducted several days before the Post revealed the investigation of Bachus.
My feeling here is that the poll is a little flimsy. The questions smell like a push-poll, and the super-PAC paying its freight have an agenda. The Campaign for Primary Accountability supports challengers in districts where one party dominates the other. However, the results don’t reflect an obvious bias.
If anything, the poll results show Beason isn’t doing enough to exploit Bachus’ vulnerability.
Like Bachus, Beason has tried to help himself politically. At least, that’s what U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found after the mistrial of Milton McGregor and six other defendants last summer. Judge Thompson found that Beason and his former ally in the Alabmaa Legislature, Ben Lewis, had been manipulating the Justice Department to knee-cap political opponents and trying to keep gambling off of the general election ballot in an effort to suppress the black vote. And of course, there was the whole aborigines comment.
Beason takes credit for helping the feds investigate corruption, but in effect, he did more to help Milton McGregor and his codefendants. When the bingo corruption retrial began last week, prosecutors said that they did not intend to call either Beason or Lewis as witnesses, but both men did, however, make the witness list for the defense. [See correction appended below.]
There is a zen in the art of Alabama politics that neither Beason nor Bachus understand. The only way to help yourself is to help others. But if Beason is paying attention, he might have learned that lesson last week at the foot of the master — Rep. John Rogers.
Last week, Rogers, along with state Representatives Mary Moore and Juandalynn Givan, signed an open letter arguing that Beason is not a racist, and Rogers argued that he’d heard more racist comments than calling blacks “aborigines” on the floor of the legislature. Curiously, Moore and Givan didn’t always feel this way, having participated in a press conference last summer calling for Beason to resign. Moore argued then that Beason’s “aborigines” comment wasn’t just a stupid remark but a reflection of his soul. Now she’s signing a different tune — a tune written no doubt, by Rogers.
Frequently, people ask me how Rogers does it. Why does his constituency keep re-electing him, especially when he works against their best interests, such as when he killed a bill to fully fund mass transit or when he has worked to kill bills to shore up the county.
This is the answer.
I’ve heard a number of people speculate in the last week that Beason and Rogers have some kind of deal. But Rogers is more nuanced than that (not a quality most people attribute to him). He knows one of the most important rules in politics: Sometimes you have to make enemies, but you always have to make friends.
And a friend in need is a friend indeed.
Rogers lent Beason racial cover because he didn’t have to, and now Beason owes him. This is, after all, the man who once bragged to Birmingham News reporter Brett Blackledge, “They call me ‘the godfather.’”
It’s not so hard to imagine the marbled-mouth Rogers saying, “Some day — and that day may never come — I will call upon you to do a service for me …”
But rest assured, that day will come.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.
Correction: A previous version of this column published online said that neither Beason nor Lewis were on the prosecution’s witness list. They are on the list, but prosecutors have said they do not intend to call them.