Tuesday, May 29, 2007



Last week I was in DC for a few days and my meetings-- nonstop, back-to-back before I had to take off for Chicago-- afforded me a little time to sleep and one free morning. I figured I'd go visit some of our pals on The Hill during that one free slot. I jump in a taxi and a block later we're at a red light and this guy in a suit and tie walks over to the open window and says, "I don't suppose you're on your way over to the Hill, are you?" I said, "Sure, jump in." He does and then I remember to ask, "Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"

Well, at one time, long ago, the man in the suit and tie who jumped in the taxi was just a kid who found himself in DC working for a Democratic senator from back home. Eventually he wound up as the president of the Capitol Hill Democrats. He didn't say what party is was a member of, just that he's a patriot who loves the country. I relaxed; anyone who loves the country has to hate Bush and the Republicans. Then it came out that the senator who he used to work for was not exactly what we would call a Democrat today: John Sparkman, who served from 1946 until 1979 and-- much like Joe Lieberman in 2000, was the Democratic Party's nominee for vice president in 1952. I well remember as a very young Democrat in Brooklyn, NY thinking what a disgrace it was for the Democratic Party to have people like Sparkman, a virulent and aggressive racist and, as it turned out, a forebearer of the modern GOP. "Hmmm..." I said; "if Sparkman were alive today he wouldn't be a Democrat. You're not a Democrat any longer either, are you?"

He came clean. He's spilled his guts. He seemed like a nice normal guy. Name's Rick Sellers and he's back living in Montgomery, Alabama. Sitting in a taxi talking with him, you'd never guess what he's been up to. He didn't tell me exactly why he joined the GOP, only that in 1992 he ran against then Democratic Senator Richard Shelby. Although he only managed to swing about a third of the vote, the half million people who did vote for him were more than had ever voted for a Republican for U.S. Senator in Alabama going way back to the days of the reviled Abe Lincoln, when being a "Republican" meant something entirely different from what being a Republican means today.

His race against Sellers, the obvious way the wind was blowing in the post-Nixon "Southern Strategy" states of the Old Confederacy, and then the Republican victory in both Houses in the 1994 elections caused Shelby to switch parties. (A vicious reactionary, he had been voting with the GOP for years.) Meanwhile, Sellers ran the NRA's anti-Democratic Party smear campaign which he confidently told me in the back of the cab was the "real" reason the Republicans managed to win so many seats from the Democrats in 1994. "It was what we did at the NRA," he boasted to me, "much more than Newt and the Contract With America."

If you're a regular DWT reader, I'm sure you can imagine what was coursing through my brain at this moment-- as I was making my way to the DCCC building. But Rick didn't have horns coming out of his head and if he has cloven hooves, they were well hidden. He had a perfectly friendly and positive demeanor and even offered to pay the taxi fare. When I told him I was in Washington to attend meetings of a progressive political action committee he got all excited that some personal friends of his were on the same committee and made me promise to give them his regards and his cards.

One of them was former Republican-- very former-- Congressman John Buchanan from Alabama. John is neither my idea of a Republican nor of an Alabama congressman. But he once told me a story about a county in Alabama, Winston County up north near Tennessee, that seceded from Alabama when Alabama seceded from the U.S. and declared itself the Republic of Winston (often called the Free State of Winston even today). It has been a Republican bastion since the 1860s-- but a Lincoln Republican bastion-- and that's the kind of Republican-- and congressman-- John Buchanan was. He was also, in 1980, the first victim of the so-called Christian Coalition (ironic since he was a graduate of the Southern Theological Seminary; less ironic when you think about what an extremist and partisan bunch of maniacs the Christian Coalition was). John was defeated by the religious right in the Republican primary who backed a neo-fascist, Albert Smith. Smith served one term and was so insane and extreme that he was defeated by a Democrat, Ben Erdreich, who represented the district for a decade afterwards. John didn't say anything when I handed him Sellers' card.



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