Monday, March 3, 2008

Schooling You on Carson

Time for full disclosure. I am on Andre Carson’s donor list. Also, Mr. Carson’s father-in-law, Marion County Superior Judge David Shaheed, is a man I hold in extremely high regard. At the same time, I am a late convert, not a Carson clan devotee. I worked for Ann Delaney against Mr. Carson’s grandmother in 1994. (Ms. Delaney was instrumental in the successful campaign I ran for Pam Carter in 1992. I never forgot Ann’s generosity in offering counsel). To what degree these facts color your impression of what follows is for you to decide.

We all have biases. The question is whether we are honest enough to know when we make apologies we shouldn’t or gloss over concerns that merit scrutiny. Can’t we advocate for a candidate without accepting his or her infallibility?

Some may say comments that follow do a disservice to the Democratic Party. But just as Dr. King said openly disobeying an unjust law shows the highest form of respect for law, speaking out with an eye toward improving a body one serves shows the highest form of respect for that body. So here it is. Prior to slating, I was dead set against Andre Carson. I held a fervent belief (and still do) that a congressional seat is not a family heirloom to be handed down. I was fond of telling people that if you took the names off the Democratic candidates' resumes, Andre Carson’s would not be the one you selected. I realize now that I was looking for the “best candidate on paper,” not necessarily the “best representative.”

The claim that Andre Carson has insufficient experience resonated with me. I knew why shortly after I read that Barack Obama is not deemed “inexperienced” by people 40 and younger as much as he is by people 55 and older. The human reaction is to gauge others’ “experience” by where we sit in our own lives, and I am older than Mr. Carson. After slating, though, I had to come to grips with the idea that if someone should not automatically get an office by virtue of family history, should they be automatically disqualified because of it? I started thinking about what “experience” really means. Dick Cheney is the most “experienced” elected official in Washington, D.C. Has that been an asset to this country, or has it been used destructively?

Moreover, how can anyone talk about “experience” without considering what skills the job requires? Twenty years in sales is useless in a marketing job. Being a CEO for a Fortune 500 company that sent all its manufacturing jobs overseas is useless if you run a company trying to create high paying jobs in America. The discussion has to begin with what a member of Congress does and what skills are required to accomplish it.

If you subscribe to the “delegate theory of representation,” a congressperson must mimic the districts’ expressed interests on each vote. If you subscribe to the “trustee” theory, a congressperson must make a value judgment based on how he thinks the district would act with information he has but they don’t, and in sufficiently compelling circumstances, he must act in the nation’s interest instead of the district’s.

If you believe your congressperson should be your delegate, your congressperson must be able to: (a) listen to constituents; and (b) push a button. If you believe in the trustee theory, your congressperson must have an extremely incisive mind and a comprehensive knowledge of world affairs, industry, macroeconomics, global trends, science, the environment, and human nature (among many other fields). In short, you need a “super genius.” But as anyone who has watched Jeopardy knows, freakishly high intellect and social skills seldom coincide. We are usually left to select one who we believe can digest issues quickly (or “grasp the heart of the matter”) while also being able to interact with others. Regardless of which representation theory you choose, you should also probably be able to “horse trade” to get things done.

With these ideas in mind, here’s why I like Andre Carson. At a recent event I attended, he asked more questions than he answered. (Republicans insert your joke here). I found it refreshing that he did not feel pressed to act as if he had all the solutions. He was much more interested in absorbing what we were saying, and in this respect, you could see the best of Julia Carson coming out of him.

I consider myself reasonably informed, and I cannot name a single bill Julia Carson authored, except one to get Rosa Parks recognized. But nobody can say she didn’t listen to her district. Nobody. (Well, they can say it, but they’ll be viewed in the same way we look at people who wear aluminum foil on their heads because they say the CIA is using satellites to listen to their thoughts). Andre Carson showed me he WILL listen. And if the district’s view contrasts his, I firmly believe he will let his own feelings give way. That takes humility, and anyone who has talked with him for even a few minutes will see he has it in buckets. (Ironically, his humility may stem as much from his recognition that many people do not believe he is deserving of such a privileged office as it does from his Muslim faith).

People will say, “Yes, but everybody will listen. These other candidates have been in office longer.” David Orenlichter and Carolene Mays serve in the Indiana General Assembly. Joanne Sanders is serving with distinction on the city-county council. Woody Meyers is…. hmmm. Umm. I'm not really sure. Let me get back to you on that one.

My point is that none of these people have “experience” applicable to Congress. The issues, personalities, and procedures are all different. Knowing how to work Luke Kenley won’t do you any good in D.C. That’s why, all things being equal, I would take someone on the hip of a sitting member of Congress, over someone with ten years at the Indiana General Assembly any day. Also, I harbor a belief that Andre Carson is most likely to hit the ground running. Julia Carson was beloved by the members of the Black Congressional Caucus and even by such Republican hardheads as Dan Burton. They will all embrace Andre Carson out of respect for his grandmother the first day of his arrival. The national house leadership has already stepped in and helped him. While Republicans will decry the “outside influence,” it’s the beltway equivalent of a “we care about Indianapolis" greeting card. We know that the national folks will make sure Carson lands well to ensure he stays where he is. These folks know that Congress is a game of longevity, and power for the district comes from seniority. Andre Carson has the potential to be a two-decade congressperson, and I would daresay that before we reach 2024, he will be the leader of a major congressional committee, just as Andy Jacobs was. (The same thing cannot be said for Jon Elrod, though he is equally youthful, as the demographics of the 7th District would make him a perpetual target from D challengers. Even if he wins, he'd be a one or two-termer).

Mr. Carson’s critics do themselves a disservice by referring to “experience,” but this sounds like code. What it SEEMS they really want to say is that Mr. Carson does not have the intellectual heft to do the job of a representative under the trustee model. I suggest this because my fellow Blogger, Gary Welsh, at Advance America (see sidebar for link) has pointed out on several occasions as have numerous posters to the Indianapolis Star, that Mr. Carson attended an on-line college (Concordia University) and that he was ranked near the bottom in his law enforcement class.

When I hear these criticisms, my initial reaction is to call out those Republicans who voted for the C-student in the Whitehouse. But that’s doesn’t support Mr. Carson; it just chastises them for hypocrisy. Also, given that President Bush has done such a deplorable job, it certainly adds weight to the idea that some intellect should be a prerequisite for public service.

It is fair game to assess Mr. Carson’s educational history in making this assessment. (Though, Mr. Elrod should produce his undergrad and law school transcripts as well). But as we are rummaging to see what embarrassing course titles lay therein, I hope we will be mindful that book smarts are not uniformly the sin quo non of a leader in most fields. Our country has been built by many great “street savvy” entrepreneurs, and most lawyers know people who graduated ahead of them in law school who they wouldn’t let represent their dog in court. Moreover, there are legions of management books devoted to the notion the skillfully dealing with others and their emotions (a/k/a EQ, emotional quotient) is more important than I.Q in predicting success. Arguably the most effective legislator in American history was Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who graduated from that bastion of intellectualism, Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College.

I wish I could shake the Magic 8 Ball and have it deliver the clear answer on how much smarter someone with no charisma must be to trump someone with less technical knowledge who connects well with people before it’s a net gain. But I just keep getting “Ask Again Later.” The ball knows that, in some situations, a book-smart candidate would be the better choice. But it also knows that high intellect is just as often connected to arrogance, condescension, and “I know-it-all” insensitivity, a la Dukakis (and arguably even Hillary Clinton). That doesn't wash in the 7th District of Indiana.

All I can offer is that during the same event I spoke of earlier, Mr. Carson showed a strong grasp of the pro and cons on many diverse ideas. (I intend to attend the debate Thursday night to see if this was an anomaly). This was refreshing as well. As voters, we want everything to be put nicely in boxes. We want to know that our lives will be made right without any sacrifice. Andre Carson on this day would not say it, though he certainly could have. There were no cameras and no microphones. Just one man, his constituents, and frank conversation….just like Grandma Carson used to make.



legaldiva said...

Ahhhh...the difficulty of creating a short response to this one. Well, I'm hoping that I didn't misinterpret what I perceived to be a comparison to Obama because, simply put...there isn't one. While I agree that the whole charisma/listening to constituents trait is important, I also believe wholeheartedly that there must be some indication that one has the intellectual capacity to think on their own and not be controlled by others. The difference between him and Obama is that Obama's experience proves that he listens to the people and is a proven advocate for the people. He has been for many years. Mr. Carson simply hasn't shown any similar traits. I'm open to the possibility, but I'm very skeptical.

Exit 465 said...

Good and fair post. I have to disagree with you on one point. You said that none of the other candidates whose names are being passed around as an alternative to Carson have experience applicable to Congress. Orentlicker and Mays both serve in a body that is a microcosim of Congress. Sure, the politics aren't as brutal or the stage as grand, but the job experience is similar. And Orentlicker, specifically, is already battle-tested in a swing district. That means something when the politics and stage are larger. Just my opinion :)

You've got better insight into this race, and Carson particularly, than I do. I'm so far out of the political realm now that it isn't even funny. But I just can't feel in my conscience that I can vote for him. It just feels too dirty for me. Very good candidates were pushed out to make room for someone with no public record to stand on. I just can't support that thinking.

ArtFuggins said...

I appreciate you helping with the Mary Ann Sullivan campaign as that was a victory for good government. I, too, was a skeptical of Andre Carson but this was a few years ago when there was talk that he would run for city council. I have since talked with him, listened to him, he has listened to me. I find him fully aware of our community and the issues and ready to go to congress. I think his wife and father-in-law have been very good influences on him. Judge David Shaheed is one of the most respected judges we have.