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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Two States: Liberal Traditions, Conservative Visions

April 28, 2017

Barbara Jordan would be turning over in her grave if she knew what’s happening to her dreams and principles in Washington and Austin.

Sarah Weddington’s ornate but as-yet-unneeded tombstone stands a few yards from where Jordan is buried atop a rise at the Texas State Cemetery, about a mile from the state Capitol in Austin. Weddington, who does know what’s happening, is undoubtedly as upset as Jordan would be if Jordan were still with us.

Jordan’s name should be familiar as the first African American woman from the South to be elected to Congress and for her ringing opening remarks at the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 hearings on impeaching President Richard Nixon: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total,” she told her committee colleagues and an enraptured nation.  “And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.”  During her six years in the U.S. House, Jordan championed civil rights, women’s rights and voting rights.

Weddington’s name has long faded from most memories.  She was the lawyer (and former state lawmaker) who successfully represented Norma McCorvey—the real name of “Jane Roe”—before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 landmark abortion rights case Roe vs. Wade.  She later became an advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

Elsewhere in the same cemetery is the grave of ex-U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a liberal icon from an era when New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society philosophies weren’t the label of political death in the Lone Star State.  He wrote landmark Medicare, Medicaid, endangered species and War on Poverty laws and served from 1957 until his reelection defeat in 1970.

Here in Michigan, Phil Hart would be turning over in his grave in Mackinac Island’s St. Ann’s Cemetery if he knew what’s happening to his dreams and principles in Washington and Lansing.  So too would Wade McCree, buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.  Known as the “Conscience of the Senate” during his three terms in Washington as a Democratic U.S. senator, Hart championed gun control and served as the floor manager during the contentious debate over the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  McCree, Carter’s solicitor general, wrote key decisions in civil rights and environmental cases while serving on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and he later taught law at the University of Michigan.

Like Jordan and Yarborough, Hart served with principle and vision in Washington. McCree—like his fellow lawyer and fellow Carter appointee Weddington—viewed the law as a powerful shield to protect the rights of individuals.

There are many political similarities between Michigan and Texas.  Republicans in both states hold a lock on the highest levels of all three branches of government: GOP governors Rick Snyder and Greg Abbott, large majorities in both legislative chambers and a GOP majority on the state supreme courts (all nine Texas justice and five of seven Michigan justices).

Republicans hold the bulk of U.S. House seats (25 of 36 in Texas and nine of 14 in Michigan).  After the 2020 Census, Michigan—with its stagnant population—is likely to lose one congressional seat, according to FairVote.org.  At the same time, Texas—with its growing population—is poised to gain three seats, more than any other state.

Both states also have incumbent U.S. senators on the 2018 ballot; Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Texas Republican—and once-and-future presidential hopeful—Ted Cruz.  What’s happening on the national and state levels is turning their work around 180 degrees.  The rights Jordan, Weddington, Yarborough, Hart and McCree so fearlessly advocated are under withering fire. Let’s look at a few.

Voting rights: On April 20, the same day I was wandering around the immaculately landscaped Texas State Cemetery, a three-member panel of federal judges found that the Texas legislature intended to dilute the political power of minority voters when it gerrymandered state House districts in 2011.  In two earlier rulings, federal courts found the same impermissible discriminatory motive behind that state’s 2011 voter ID law.  Meanwhile in Michigan, we’ve witnessed a drive to make the fundamental right to vote more difficult rather than easier, while proposals to create a nonpartisan, anti-gerrymandering mechanism to redistrict legislative and congressional districts face a steep uphill trudge.

Reproductive rights: Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated two parts of a 2013 Texas law that sharply cut the number of abortion facilities in that state.  One provision required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.  The other required abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.  While the Trump administration has moved to cut government funding for all Planned Parenthood activities, legislators in both states continue to introduce bills to reduce or eliminate reproductive freedom.  In January, Weddington told NBC News, “I think everyone who cares about the Roe v. Wade issue and other reproductive rights is very concerned about what will happen.”

Honesty in government: Jordan epitomized a belief that those who serve the public must be honest and worthy of the public’s trust.  In his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, McCree successfully defended the law requiring giving the federal government control over disgraced former President Richard Nixon’s papers and tape recordings.  Meanwhile, the new presidential administration is permeated by high public officials who have shown themselves to be dishonest and unworthy of trust, from press secretary Sean Spicer to Cabinet, sub-Cabinet and White House advisors who have been caught repeatedly in lies and conflicts of interest.

Health care and human services: WWYS? — What Would Yarborough say if he could witness the GOP’s Affordable Care Act repeal efforts and severe cutbacks in funding for, and enforcement of, environmental protection programs?

Gun control: Hart would be shuddering in despair as both state and the federal governments make it easier and easier for more and more people to own, carry and use more and more firearms.

We can’t read minds, of course. But had the 2016 presidential and congressional elections gone in a different way, we might be exploring other cemeteries and speculating about how principled conservatives such as Michigan’s late Supreme Court Justice James Brickley, the late U.S. Supreme Court Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would be reacting to current events.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

April 27, 2017 · Filed under Freedman


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