Most politically engaged citizens of our county have heard by now of the ruckus kicked up last Monday night during a public hearing in front of the County Commission over land acquisition. Deborah Greene and Karen Carter, famous as "no-zoning" activists in 2001 and 2002, put on a tag-team dope-slap of commissioners David Blust (especially) and Keith Honeycutt that included enough actionable accusations to cover just about everybody else in the room.
They alleged among other things that:
1. The Smitherman Winkler land purchase earlier this year adjacent to the high school "is riddled with 'conflict of interests' and lack of due diligence" (Greene).
2. "...you take great delight in abusing closed sessions and keeping scant notes..." (Greene).
3. "...we have a board majority comprised of real estate moguls..." (Greene).
4. "You do not care one iota how much you hurt the taxpayers!" (Carter).
5. "...this current board's property acquisition and higher taxation agenda is to obviously place more pressure on landowners in order to force them out..." (Carter).
6. "...would that we did have a few corporations here that gave more than just a few meaningful and stable jobs for local people, instead of mainly for the college students, but the only 'corporations' allowed in this area, aside from the unstable rubberneck businesses, are the highly-touted, yet in truth, pitiful cottage-industry bubbles; such as basket-weaving, trinket-and-bauble making -- thanks to the regional and local SOVIETS, such as 'Disadvantage West' and that other taxpayer-funded, 800-pound gorilla -- ASU" (Carter).
Most of these passages (quoted from the written statements Greene & Carter entered into the public record) are either (a) demonstrably false statements of fact, characterized by a paranoia that passeth understanding or (b) earth-shaking revelations of uninvestigated, not to mention unprosecuted, malfeasance.
Ms. Greene's full statement was cut off by the public hearing time-limit of three minutes. "No, I'm sure you don't wanna give us five minutes!" she retorted as she quit the podium, leaving unspoken the last few paragraphs of her prepared statement, which in the interests of public education we reproduce verbatim here:
"You have accumulated an exorbitant fund balance, despite the new jail, Helig-Meyers, courthouse expansion. Therefore there was no need for the current tax increase of 4.5 cents, and now we're speaking to the new board members. You have added insult to injury. Do you really think that we are that STUPID? We guess so. You have even resorted to referring anyone who complains that they can't afford the tax increase to Social Services for investigation, 'police-state tactics of intimidation'! [More malfeasance!] Now, if you would stop your current rate of spending, we would have enough money to renovate Watauga High School at the end of this fiscal year and still have the 12% fund balance level that the county finance director recommends we have. Stop playing 'Monopoly'! This is no game, guys. As it stands, with the Winkler Smitherman fiasco, you all should be 'tarred-and-feathered and ran out on a rail'! Angry, Commissioner Blust? YES, I AM!!!!"
Karen Carter ended her statement with the same personal thrust: "Yes, Mr. Blust, I am angry." The unexplained anger at Blust (specifically) and at Honeycutt bubbled like an artesian well out of D. Greene at the end of her three minutes. She had launched a second front of complaint (in addition to her charge of "playing Monopoly" with land acquisitions), lambasting the tax increase of 2003, NOT the one of 2005, but of 2003, when Blust & Honeycutt were among the political majority on the board. "And I'm not speaking to these three board members here," Ms. Greene said, gesturing toward commissioners Kinsey, Winkler, and Deal. "I'm speaking to these two here [Blust & Honeycutt], 'cause you're part of the prior board. You gave us a 10-cent tax increase that year."
Like all Ms. Greene's published work, mysterious references to facts not in evidence Monday night might have sunk some listeners into a profound puzzlement. But she has a point about the revaluation of property in 2003 and the hugely increased tax revenues because of it, even after the Republican-controlled prior board reduced the tax rate with a partisan flourish. They told everyone in the election campaign that they had cut taxes when in fact they were raking in more money. And we certainly 'preciate a Republican party activist pointing that out!
Apparently, angry e-mails had passed prior to Monday night's hearing from D. Greene to commissioners Blust and Honeycutt, and clearly Ms. Greene had not liked their responses: "Easy for you to simply 'flick off that speck of dust' by saying things like Commissioner Blust 'You don't have your facts straight.' When Commissioner Blust is asked which facts, he's silent. Commissioner Honeycutt says 'People don't know what you know.' " Etc.
Sometimes the worst part of public service, God knows, is dealing with your supporters, and what makes D. Greene's performance Monday night especially worthy of meditation is that she's been the most visible and the most effective operative for partisan Republican attacks for the last three or four years. She worked like the devil to get Blust and Honeycutt elected. And doesn't she speak for the local Republican party? Or has something changed?
There are a variety of possible theories to explain a kitten with a whip going after "her guys," but the one I'm leaning toward was advanced to me by a wise old man of the mountains who once upon a time had an ambition to hold public office with an "R" after his name:
The Greene/Carter attacks are evidence of a significant split in the Republican Party. The split is related to but not limited by the current political exile of Allen Trivette, the voice of the rural working man crying in the wilderness. Trivette's view of civics is shared largely and enthusiastically by Greene & Carter. Trivette's crushing defeat last fall has encysted as a hard knot of rural resentment ... against newcomers, against town folks, against university people. Also against Democrats, but partisan political rivalry seems actually less of a motivation than the demographics of urban wealth, power, and privilege. Of all the county commissioners of recent memory, Trivette stands out as a rock solid man of principle. He was most assuredly NOT a politician, tacking with the winds of public opinion. He stood strong and inflexible for his philosophy of self-reliance, his scorn for manifestations of too much (useless) education, his suspicions of too much government, and his eagerness to limit what government does. He didn't particularly cotton to men in suits, unless they were carrying Bibles and intending to preach on Sunday morning. His was a coherent philosophy, shared for the most part by Greene & Carter. But the philosophy was often animated by a palpable sense of rural powerlessness in the face of arrogance. Powerlessness expresses itself sometimes as frustrated anger, as seething resentment. Powerlessness finds vast conspiracies behind every abrasion of personal dignity.
The resentment, the anger that so alarmed Mr. Blust Monday night is a legitimate political expression of a sense of rural powerlessness. Think of the sub-text of most of what Carter & Greene have published in the local papers over the last few years ... a deep resentment of the Chamber of Commerce, accusations of illegal conspiracies by the Committee of 100, a conviction of corruption behind the hidden levers of "economic development." It's not their fault that their rural Republicanism is now so out of step with the power base of what national Republicanism has become, what Karen Carter sensibly identified as "the flawed public/private partnership" of big business getting local government to spend money on its behalf. Greene & Carter manifestly hate the kind of privilege and string-pulling that seems to come so easy for Chamber of Commerce types, but it's that very coat-and-tie Watauga elite that Blust & Honeycutt so obviously work to please.
(To be fair, Deborah Greene seems considerably less dedicated to the principles of old-time rural Republicanism when she's the recipient of the second largest federal government crop subsidy check in the county, and she did shout out facetiously at County Commission Chairman Jim Deal, after her side lost the vote Monday night, "I have 200 acres in Meat Camp I'll sell you for $50,000 an acre" -- a parting-shot of sarcasm which nevertheless spoke volumes. For someone who always wants to stand on small-government principle, she seems sometimes very nakedly in it for the money.)
Whatever else the Greene/Carter tongue-lashing represented, it did not represent Republican strategic thinking, since Carter and Greene were, after all, holding up to public ridicule their own standard-bearers, the last two Republicans on the County Commission. They broke Ronald Reagan's Eleventh Commandment. Will God punish them? Clearly, they intended to discipline Blust & Honeycutt, rather the way I used to see my grandfather discipline his dog. And the whipping was 50% effective ... 'cause Blust caved under the pressure and voted against the land acquisition. The final vote was 4-1. It was pretty obvious that Blust had been planning to vote for it, and he had certainly been a party to all the negotiations that have gone on for two-and-a-half years. As cave-ins go, Blust's produced a sizable cloud of dust and gave us a fair impression of what we might expect from him in the N.C. House, to which he desires to be promoted by the citizens in the elections of 2006.
For Honeycutt, perhaps it gets more complicated. Will there be a primary candidate against him next year when he runs for reelection to the County Commission? And will Deborah Greene be leading the charge?