Is the U.S. Senate ready for Cooter? No, I'm not talking about Ben "Cooter" Jones, famed for his "Dukes of Hazzard" starring role as the world's best mechanic. But Jones has a few lessons for politicians.
The actor's life didn't end when "Dukes" finished its seven-year run in 1985. He lost a 1986 congressional contest for a seat from Atlanta's northern burbs. He ran again in 1988, and won, and won re-election in 1990. In 1992, Jones lost in the Democratic primary. And in 1994 he flamed out in the general election against Newt Gingrich. Jones resurfaced in Virginia, where he lost another congressional race.
"He beat me like a rented mule," Jones said of his drubbing by Gingrich.
Republicans have been treating Democrats like rented mules, rather than thoroughbred donkeys, for ages. The GOP strategy is to wrap its candidates in the flag (the Confederate banner in the South), and claim they are sanctioned by God (who often speaks directly to them, through what you might call a, um, burning Bush).
The Republicans adroitly depict their foes as military cowards, unpatriotic, profligate spenders and quite likely the tools of terrorists. The irony, of course, is that GOP bosses are military avoiders, Constitution-besmirching faux patriots, spending junkies (dumping debt on our children and grandchildren), and have made the nation and world much more dangerous places, to the great joy of Osama & Co.
Which brings us to this year's crop of Cooters. The popular populist Jones was elected on a platform of being "not one of them." Anti-politicians are a staple of American politics. Indeed, even the most rotted carcass of a Beltway insider tries to portray himself as fresh, unspoiled face in Congress.
Same theory in Georgia, where former Democrats reminted as Republicans swept into office on the platform of somehow being an alternative to their own selves of a few months or years earlier.
Sensing the public dismay with the Washington culture of incompetence and corruption, would-be Cooters are springing up everywhere. Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson wants to be a presidential Cooter. So does the reptilian Newt, who wraps his venality, immorality and just plain old sleaziness in new and ill-fitting robes of a Christian zealot Cooter.
Despite those attempts to co-opt populism, real Cooterism survives. Even with his congressional tenure as a Texas Republican, you have to call libertarian Ron Paul a genuine Cooter in the presidential hustings.
Locally, consumer-advocate radio talk-host Clark Howard has emerged as a Cooter extraordinaire in a possible bid for Atlanta mayor. What's there not to like about Howard?
And now we have Dale Cardwell. Earlier this month, the fierce WSB-TV investigative reporter jumped out of journalism and into politics. When he first told me the news, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Cry because the city was losing one of its best watchdogs, a guy whose reports have skewered Atlanta's flim-flam artists and political sacred cows. Laugh because Cardwell says he's going to take a U.S. Senate seat away from the corporate-bagman incumbent, Saxby Chambliss.
"I felt I had to do something," Cardwell says. "I had to speak out. Chambliss is horrible, and I think people in this state are beginning to understand that."
Nothing inaccurate in that statement. Chambliss, who employed multiple deferments to dodge the draft during Vietnam, won his Senate seat by mendaciously sliming a true war hero, Max Cleland. Since he won election in 2002, Chambliss has been George Bush's most faithful toady. The senator's hands are stained red with the blood of fallen U.S. soldiers and slain Iraqis.
It's not the war, however, that Cardwell sees as the key to unseating Chambliss. Veteran political consultant and TV commentator Bill Crane has a good take on Cardwell's candidacy. "It's really interesting to see a Democrat take a position to the right of the Republican on immigration," Crane observes.
Chambliss is one of Bush's critical votes on the unsavory legislative hash dubbed illegal-immigration reform. The senator's vulnerability is much deeper than his support of legislation that almost no one thinks will work. Chambliss' true colors were displayed in the 1990s, when the then-congressman lobbied on behalf of South Georgia agribusiness to halt deportation of illegal-immigrant farm workers. Corporate farmers preferred the illegal immigrants – who could be treated only slightly better than slaves – to hiring Americans or even legal guest workers.
"Saxby Chambliss isn't honest," Cardwell says. "He can't close the borders. Corporate interests won't allow him to do that. They want cheap labor, and that hurts job opportunities and income for all Americans and legal immigrants."
For Cardwell, the issue is "fundamental fairness. I call it the '7-Eleven' analogy. If your kid steals a candy bar at a convenience store, you make him put it back and you make him apologize to the clerk. The current immigration bill allows the immigrant to keep the candy bar."
Cardwell is what's called a "blue-dog Democrat" – a fiscal conservative, a moderate on social issues. He's a Baptist deacon who claims he is "outraged" by massive waste of taxpayer dollars. That all sounds pretty palatable for mainstream Georgians.
But in one respect he emulates a darling of liberals, Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. "He proved you can win an election and not take any PAC [political action committee] money," Cardwell says. "I'm not taking PAC money. I won't be owned."
Before he gets a chance to fillet the sham conservative Chambliss, Cardwell has a major hurdle to leap over: Vernon Jones.
The DeKalb County CEO has announced his ambitions for Chambliss' seat. It may be a feint. But Jones has a power base, including Bishop Eddie Long and his thousands of parishioners at New Birth Baptist Church.
On the other hand, Cardwell is Jones' worst nightmare. Cardwell bested other local journalists in telling all about Jones' steamy and seamy personal life – ranging from allegations of rape to waving a loaded gun at a woman.
Of a possible matchup with Jones, Cardwell says, "My running is about one thing: breaking the hold of corrupt professional politicians."
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