Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Channeling Adlai: Jim Martin speaks to working Georgians

Posted By on Wed, Oct 25, 2006 at 7:56 PM

I remember talking to an old World War II working stiff from Missouri, the kind of guy whose proudest possession alongside the Bronze Star he won in Europe was a battered old photograph of Give 'Em Hell Harry.

This old guy loved Truman.

But if you really wanted to get him to talk passionately about the great statesmen of the 20th century, all you had to do was mention Adlai Stevenson, the two-time loser in his bid for the American presidency in the 1950s.

"I remember listening to Adlai make a speech once and I couldn't believe what I was hearing," this old Democrat told me. "I looked over at another member of the audience standing next to me." He caught the other man's eye, trusting he would see the same wonderment reflected back at the high level of American political rhetoric Stevenson was delivering. Instead the old timer saw the other man shaking his head in discouragement.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

The other man drew the palm of his hand across his head and said something to the effect that everything Stevenson was saying was going straight over the top.

The old guy I knew was still burned up over the exchange.

"I told this fellow, 'If this is going over your head, you must be dumb!'"

I never asked when it was along the political continuum that this anecdote occurred. But it's fair to say it was either before or after a Stevenson loss. Years later, when a book came out on the late political historian Richard Hofstadter, I read in a review something to the effect that Hofstadter gave up on being involved in American politics after Adlai Stevenson took a beating for the second time. He was heartbroken with the notion that the American public would reject a man with so much intellect, and such obstinate faith in the ability of people to understand complex issues.

"Let's talk sense to the American people." That was Stevenson's motto, and there were old Dems who until their deaths went around with that motto on the bumpers of their cars.

There have been few Adlai Stevensons since that time, mainly because those who run for public office who look or sound like eggheads are quickly advised to dumb themselves down, mostly for the medium of television. Once in a while, a populist candidate comes to the fore or close to the fore of the political season with people on both sides of the aisle universally praising him for his intelligence. One of the most striking things about Georgia election year 2002 is the presence in the lieutenant governor's race of Jim Martin, a former state legislator and health and human services commissioner, who dares to talk about the same issues of economic fairness that Stevenson addressed in his presidential campaigns.

Mostly in the name of political expediency, Democrats for years abandoned the strategy of speaking clearly and loudly about the cause of universal health care. In the wake of a failed bid to secure single-payer health care for Americans and a concession to Newt Gingrich and the House of Republicans to reform welfare, then-President Bill Clinton proclaimed in the 1990s that "the era of big government is over." Republicans have continued to press a privatization agenda, and Democrats have mostly gone along for the ride. While swelling the military budget and increasing the federal deficit, President George W. Bush built a presidential career on slashing government programs and advocating permanent tax cuts, an approach that Martin's opponent Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, eagerly supported with legislation.

In the midst of all the campaign trail static, Martin refuses to be broad-brushed as a liberal -- but he will not apologize for advocating programs that benefit working families and the poor. A self-described social progressive and fiscal conservative, he says the main challenge of a public official is using the instrument of government to positively impact people's lives -- while keeping the books.

Elizabeth Appley, a lobbyist for women's rights, choice issues and labor, says Martin was one of Georgia's best state representatives over the course of the last 25 years, an unabashed advocate for low-income people.

"He worked very hard as chair of the committees, and repeatedly acted to increase Georgians' access to health and human services," Appley says. "There were myriad budgets he impacted in that way, and a number of bills he authored increasing people's access to health care. He supported legislation to increase the minimum wage in this state. This is a man who looks at public welfare and the public good more than the bottom line of big business."

But how will this play out on election day? A Strategic Vision poll last week showed him doing better than Mark Taylor, the Democratic nominee for governor, but still trailing Cagle, although not by much: 38 to 45 percent. This week, the Martin campaign trumpeted the support their candidate is receiving from Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who was badly bruised by Taylor in her unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign for governor. While gung ho in getting behind Martin, Cox has yet to back Taylor.

Whatever support they get and wherever they get it, the Martin campaign will live or die on health care and economic fairness. If he wins, Martin will be uniquely positioned to restore his currently fragmented party to an essential populist narrative.

"What you have to understand about Jim Martin is that when he was in the Legislature he had several framed pictures of FDR behind his desk," says Democratic Party insider Tom Mishou. "He is absolutely a New Deal Democrat. He believes it to his core, and the Republicans are going to try to hang this on him."

In a speech he made last month to a small crowd of Atlanta-area Democrats in the Park Avenue Tavern, Martin said that in 2005, 1.5 million Georgians were without health care. This year he said it's up to 1.7 million. He explains that he wants to improve health-care access by creating a state-run insurance pool. "Basically the idea is that the state would provide the structure," Martin says. "It would be paid for mostly by employers and employees, who would have the benefit of a large pool of money to cover health-care costs. I think it would address health-care needs and create a renaissance of small business in Georgia. It would really provide jobs and keep jobs in the state."

For all of the wonkishness he radiates, Martin emphasizes that his commitment to the poor and to working people comes from real-world experience. "When I went into the army and I was sent to Vietnam, my oldest child had just been born," Martin recalls. "I understand the kind of sacrifices that people make. That was an important lesson for me."

He refuses to get drawn into a long discussion about why the Republicans have been able to demonize the very notion of government in people's lives. "You could almost teach a course on the philosophical evolution of how government came to be negatively associated," the candidate says. "I think it was a lot of things, among them Watergate, the war in Vietnam. Recent historical events. But I think the main thing, the major cause, is political campaigns, and the ads that people run in order to be elected."

Susan Moore went to Northside (now North) High School in Atlanta with Martin in the early 1960s.

"He was one in a million," says Moore, an Atlanta writer. "The only thing Jimmy needs to do is change his hair."

Martin was president of the school when Moore was in the ninth grade.

"What senior in his right mind would speak to a ninth-grader?" Moore says. "Jimmy did. He didn't care what people thought. He had a separateness that was not lonely. To me it was refreshing to see someone slight and intellectual running the school instead of the football players."

On his way to accepting his party's nomination for the office of lieutenant governor in the Georgia International Convention Center last month, a week after the Park Tavern speech, Martin appeared as "Born to Run" rose above a crescendo of handclaps. The Springsteen song is about a working-class hero in a small town, reaching beyond the narrowness of time and place for something permanent. Martin said that permanence in his own life took the shape of faith, family and patriotism. There were no rhetorical flourishes, or explications of policy. He kept the speech simple, direct.

"This is the highest point in my public life," he told the people. "This election is about leadership and values. I am the candidate who has a record of leadership and accomplishment."

Acknowledging the sting of past campaign rhetoric, an allusion perhaps to the Swift Boat attacks in 2004 on John Kerry, the candidate cried, "No Republican is going to take those values away from me!"

The crowd cheered.

Could it be that the new Adlai, modified and modernized for the 21st century, could actually win one for a change?

-- Max Pizarro

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