Thursday, July 03, 2008

McGee and the Big Picture: We're looking at the wrong one

James T. Harris is wondering the same thing that I am. Why has the conviction of Michael McGee resulted in thumbsucking over the city's licensing system? He suggests that this may be about Mayor Barrett's rivalry with Common Council President Hines. That could be, but I wonder, too, if this isn't an attempt to obscure the Theresa Estness Effect.

McGee held up more than aspiring licensees. He (and his father before him) intimidated a fair chunk of the area's officialdom and commentariat by portraying themselves as spokeman for a righteous racial anger that, however much we might disagree with his methods, must be respected. This worked for him in two ways. He attracted enough support in the black community that he cowed responsible black leaders into silence or restraint. What you heard in private was rarely repeated in public and, at least in part, for understandable reasons. Picking a fight with McGee would be politically dangerous.

For white leaders, the effect worked in a different way. Embracing (in Estness' case, literally) or at least gesturing in the direction of the legitimate grievance that the McGees were thought to represent was a way to establish one's racial good faith or at least help to avoid allegations of racism. However much we wring our hands over it and pretend to be engaged, we still have had little serious discussion, as opposed to a series of lectures, about race and poverty in this town.

So the McGees had along run. Junior ended it through his criminal victimization of license aspirants and other, but the real victims were McGee's consituents who, however much they may have enjoyed the frisson of an alderman poking the Man in the eye, were denied leadership that might have changed something for them.

If we want to look at the larger lesson of the McGee affair, I'd suggest we look at this and not liquor licenses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that the odd focus on the licensing process and the "alderman's privilege" represents a much larger misapprehension.

For a number of political and other reasons, there is a need to see whatever is deemed "corruption" as both individual intentional wrong-doing and a structural defect in government. Often, these are mutually exclusive concepts.

Given that McGee was a crook, no structure, additional rules, etc., would have stopped him (or anyone else willing to break the rules) from engaging in corruption. The rules and structural protections mainly work for the well intentioned.

A similar disconnect haunted the so-called "caucus scandal." At various times it was all loudly pitched as an indictment of a system needing reform. Nonetheless, it was also said that it involved intentional wrong-doing by specific people who broke the rules.

This kind of confusion can lead to mischief, often a raft of goofy, over the top re-regulation shoved through under pressure without much analysis.

As for McGee, if a council member is willing to sell a vote or use it to extort more reform will not remove the opportunity and the rules already prohibit bribery and extortion.

Frankly, if the "watchdogs" spent more time actually watching what government is doing and less time caterwauling that the sky is falling and demanding wholesale "reform" of one sort or another -- the system might work a lot better as it is.