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Lott’s lot
The GOP is taking a hard look at Lott. The Democrats should do the same with Daschle. Plus, Bryon Rushing’s courageous run and the continued injustice of the death penalty.

IT LOOKS AS IF Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi won’t be majority leader much longer. Controversy continues to rage over Lott’s observation, uttered during a toast at Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th-birthday party and broadcast live on C-SPAN, that "if the rest of the country" had followed Mississippi’s lead in voting for Thurmond during his 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform, "we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Senate Republicans, led by Don Nickles of Oklahoma, will hold a meeting January 6 to decide whether to keep Lott as majority leader. Make no mistake, Nickles, whose voting record on civil-rights issues is nearly as bad as Lott’s, is motivated more by ambition than by a desire to see the GOP take a strong anti-racist stand. But the end result will be good for the country. Lott, who has made other similar remarks about Thurmond’s 1948 run and Mississippi’s support for him, represents everything that’s bad about white America. He makes racist statements and denies they are racist. He opposes civil-rights legislation and denies he’s being racist. He cozies up to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens and then denies that the association means anything. Lott is, in short, a product of the Confederate-flag-waving Deep South that would reinstate segregation in a second. His leadership of the Senate is a national embarrassment, and he should go.

But the Democrats haven’t escaped the brouhaha unscathed. The party failed to come to the defense of African-Americans. The same day Lott made his first of four (and counting) apologies for his statement, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle noted: "There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I’m sure this was one of those cases for him, as well." Huh?

There are times when covering for a colleague, as Daschle was so obviously doing, is the right thing to do. This was not one of those times. For the most part, Democrats were initially quiet on the issue, with just a few exceptions. Former vice-president Al Gore called on the Senate to censure Lott during last Sunday’s broadcast of Inside Politics, and Senator John Kerry and the Reverend Jesse Jackson said the same day that Lott should step down. (Ironically, of course, Jackson, didn’t drop out of the 1988 presidential race, as he should have, after making his infamous "Hymietown" slur on New York.) Senator Ted Kennedy described Lott’s remarks as a "salute to bigotry."

After Democrats pressured Daschle to make a stronger statement, he did, calling on Lott to make a "specific renunciation and repudiation" of his statement and also calling on President Bush to "make clear that Senator Lott’s words were unacceptable." But for the most part, the Democrats have said little about Lott’s racist remarks. There are times when it’s wise to be quiet while your opponent is busy slitting his own throat. This is not one of those times. The Democrats should be all over Lott, publicly making the case that fond remembrance of Jim Crow has no place in America in 2002. This point simply cannot be made loudly enough.

It must be noted that one of the shocking things about this controversy is that Lott made his remarks on a Thursday, at which time the big media and our political leaders pretty much ignored them. It wasn’t until politicians and pundits took notice of the outrage over Lott’s remarks from influential bloggers like the liberal Joshua Micah Marshall and the conservative Andrew Sullivan that anyone spoke out against Lott and forced his first apology — which came in a written statement Monday, four days after Thurmond’s birthday party.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve become so cynical about our leaders that we barely notice when the most influential senator in the country publicly pines for the good old days of segregation. The good news is that the GOP is taking a hard look at whether it still wants Lott in its leadership position. The bad news is that the Democrats have said so little on the matter.

IT’S SYMBOLIC, but it’s important. State Representative Byron Rushing announced this week that he is running for House Speaker. To date, only a dozen legislators have said they will support him. It takes 81 votes to win the speakership.

This fall’s election showed great public disaffection with current Beacon Hill leadership. Mitt Romney won the governorship by a surprisingly wide margin, given that polls showed him neck and neck with State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien in the days leading up to the election. A series of ads Romney ran in the final days linking O’Brien with Beacon Hill leaders including Finneran (the "gang of three" spots) is largely credited with swaying the public to Romney.

In addition, the group Overthrow Finneran ( sponsored nonbinding referendums in 18 House districts asking voters to instruct their state representatives not to re-elect Finneran as House Speaker. All 18 districts passed the measure.

Finneran is notorious for punishing dissenters — like Rushing. In 1997, Rushing didn’t support Finneran’s bid for speaker, so Finneran took away Rushing’s chairmanship of the Insurance Committee. And after Rushing supported term limits for House Speakers a few years ago, he lost his spot on the Transportation Committee.

Under Finneran’s reign, the amount of legislation the House considers has dwindled drastically. Measures routinely passed by the Senate, most significantly domestic-partnership measures, die in the House. Finneran was also the obstacle for many years to getting legislation passed that would have mandated clergy, including clerics in the Catholic Church, to report child abuse. It’s not a pretty legacy.

Rushing’s going to lose. He’s knows he’s going to lose. But he deserves high praise for doing what no other legislator has the courage to do: take on Finneran one on one.

THE US JUSTICE Department released some good news on Sunday: both the number of prisoners sentenced to death and those who were executed in the United States declined in 2001. Last year, 66 prisoners were put to death, 19 fewer than the 85 who were killed in 2000. Death sentences were given to 155 defendants in 2000, which marks the third straight year in which death sentences have decreased. In 2000, there were 229; in 1999, there were 282; and in 1998, there were 304.

All that said, however, the death penalty remains a sickening instrument of "justice." Not only is it wrong on every conceivable moral ground, but there is simply no guarantee that it can be applied fairly. Last week’s execution of Oklahoma inmate Jay Wesley Neill demonstrates this.

There is no doubt that Neill was guilty of the murders for which he was sentenced to death: there were witnesses, and he not only confessed to the crimes, but he also apologized repeatedly to his victims’ families. The murders he committed were almost inconceivably cruel — a summary of his case might even sway the opinion of one undecided on the death penalty: in 1984, when he was 19, Neill robbed a bank with his boyfriend, 21-year-old Grady Johnson. During the robbery, Neill stabbed three bank employees to death; one of them was seven months pregnant. After killing them, he tried to decapitate their bodies. During the robbery, five customers entered the bank, including an 18-month-old child. Neill forced all of them to lie face down on the floor. He then shot each of them, killing one and wounding three. Although Neill has always denied shooting at the 18-month-old, who survived the ordeal unscathed, witnesses say Neill did shoot at the child, but his gun had by then run out of bullets. The robbery yielded $17,000, which Neill and Johnson used to flee to San Francisco, where they spent the money on jewelry, clothing, cocaine, hotel rooms, and limousines. They were arrested three days later.

During the penalty phase of his second trial, the prosecutor made an astonishingly blatant homophobic appeal to the jury: "I’d like to go through some things, and I’d like to do it in as generic a form as I can.... I want you to think briefly about the man you’re setting [sic] in judgment on and determining what the appropriate punishment should be, and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, you have everything in this case, the good, the bad, everything that the law allows to aid you in this decision.... I’d like to go through some things that depict the true person, what kind of person he is. He is a homosexual. The person you’re sitting in judgment on — disregard Jay Neill. You’re deciding life and death on a person that’s a vowed [sic] homosexual."

Neill’s crimes leave one speechless. But so does the prosecutor’s reasoning that Neill deserved to die, in part, because he is gay. The Phoenix has editorialized many times that the death penalty is wrong and immoral. But cases like this clearly show other reasons to stop the executions of prisoners in this country: there are simply no guarantees that the punishment is being meted out in an impartial manner. In this case the prosecutor called upon the jurors’ prejudice against gays. And the fact remains that it is minorities and the poor who are executed in the greatest numbers.

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Issue Date: December 19 - 26, 2002
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