Are we ready for democracy?

May 24, 2006 at 12:00 am

Someone asked me recently whether I thought Russia was ready for democracy. That's an interesting question, one that we might be able to answer if democracy was working in the U.S. of A. these days.

Here's one sample to take back to the lab: Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, member of Congress for a district centered in the east side of Detroit, was in the news earlier this year when it was revealed that she leases an expensive Cadillac at taxpayers' expense (about $9,800 a year) to tool around her district.

Never mind that her district is one of the poorest and physically smallest in the nation. We have to keep up appearances, as her son, the boy mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, demonstrated frequently during his first term.

Carolyn's Caddy might be something someone could make a campaign issue out of, don'cha think? But nobody will, either in the primary or the general election. Instead, she will be re-elected automatically.

That's because the deadline to file to run for office as a major party candidate was last week, and nobody chose to challenge her. Nobody will take her on in the Democratic primary; not a single Republican could be found to carry the party's banner in the general election. Oh, a member of the United Green Transvestite Trotskyites Against Beer party could file, anytime before July 20, and anybody can ask to be considered an "official" write-in candidate until four days before the election.

But even if they do, there's no chance in the world that CCK will get less than 90 percent of the vote. The same is true for U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), who has served in the House for a half century, longer than anyone now there and almost longer than anyone in history.

He doesn't have any opposition either. Now, it is true that he has been one of Michigan's most distinguished congressmen ever. If I lived in his district, I would probably vote for him. But Dingell has strong and controversial views on everything from hunting to fuel emissions standards to the war. Shouldn't he have to explain and defend them?

Aren't his constituents — and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick's — entitled to a debate on the issues? This country has a number of enormous problems, and our state is really in the soup economically, with worse times for the domestic auto industry, and more layoffs, on the way.

Don't you think our elected leaders — or those who want to be our leaders — should be forced to talk to us about what they would do about those things? Alas, that isn't usually the case.

Thanks to districts that are gerrymandered, so that only one party could possibly win in them, and the insanely high cost of campaigns, competitive, elective democracy in any meaningful sense is dying. The only time we have contested elections in most cases — for Congress or for state offices — is in a primary, or after an incumbent dies or retires.

Then we have a form of democracy that you might call "one man, one vote, one time." Meaning that, someday, after Rep. John Conyers, say, is called to be with the angels, a new incumbent for life will be elected.

But what would happen if the angels called John or Carolyn to that last big caucus meeting in the sky sometime between now and November? Essentially, the Democratic Party would pick the next congressman for the voters, and put little stickers saying "Thelma Schwartz" or "Debbie Dingell" or whomever, over the dead person's name on the ballot.

Since there's no opposition, that would be that.

Elsewhere in the state, only two incumbent congressmen have primary opposition — which is actually about two more than normal.

Congressman Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek is seen as a dangerous liberal by some because he is in favor of education and thinks abortion ought to be "safe, legal, and rare." Some sort of fundamentalist preacher named Timothy Walberg is attempting to rally the faithful against him.

But Dr. Joe, a former military man and a spy, is a stout supporter of the insane Iraq war, and has been endorsed by President Bush, despite the fact that he is a John McCain man to the core. He should survive.

Joe Knollenberg, an aging (72) Oakland County Republican, is also being challenged in his primary by Pan Godchaux, who is not a variety of cabbage, but a former state legislator and school board member.

This should be an interesting race; she is a sensible moderate, and says old Joe is more conservative than his district, and her supporters hint that he doesn't work especially hard or smart. There is a fair amount of truth in both those charges. But he has a vast amount of money, and a primary election base that is far more conservative than most of Oakland County. In other words, don't look for an election flash named Pan.

Most of the rest of our congressmen have no challengers in their primaries and mostly token opposition in the fall.

U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, a Democrat, is being challenged, as he was last time, by Randy Shafer, a former army supply sergeant, a nice man who has essentially no qualifications to be a congressman; he lists, among his major accomplishments, "giving blood every two months."

That doesn't mean there aren't any more qualified Republicans among the 660,000 people in his district. But they don't think they can win; making a serious run for Congress takes serious money. So they leave the sacrificial duty to the Shafers of this state, who at least care enough to try.

Satisfied with this system?

You ought to be; you allowed it to happen.

Enough to make you sick: Gov. Jennifer Granholm has no opposition in her primary either, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all, when it comes to democracy. She stands for nothing except her own re-election, and a vague promise that she might not be as bad as Dick DeVos.

Want proof? Two years ago I wrote about the Battered Women's Clemency Project, and University of Michigan professor Carol Jacobsen's gallant effort to win release for 20 women in Michigan prisons. These are mainly women who never should have been jailed at all, or who ought at least to have been released a long time ago.

Not a one is any threat to anybody.

Except that our kinder, gentler governor evidently feels that looking soft on crime might threaten her re-election. Even former Gov. William Milliken went to see her to ask her to help these poor women. But last week, the empty skirt turned down every one of the clemency petitions. "We are beyond disappointed, we are angry," Jacobsen said.

"Gov. Granholm has been stingy with mercy and has shown no integrity in addressing a criminal justice system that is out of control in this state, especially with regard to abandoning women's human and civil rights ... apparently Governor Granholm has political aspirations that she fears would be compromised by doing the right thing since these women have no power," a heartbroken Carol Jacobsen wrote to me.

That pretty much says it all.

But hey — doesn't our governor look pretty on teevee!

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]