Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Dennis Richardson, Skip the Next Apology and Resign in Disgrace

Here in Oregon, we have a state representative named Dennis Richardson who has been causing quite a stir by sending out spam emails. His first offense involved sending out heavily slanted emails to all state employees using the state's email lists. The use of those email addresses was wildly inappropriate, verging on the illegal, since what he was sending was, in essence, a push poll. We're not allowed to use the state's email system for political purposes, and a push-poll is political rhetoric masquerading as open and genuine inquiry. The most famous and insidious example of a push poll came from none other than Karl Rove, who had a bunch of people make phone calls during the primaries in 2000 when George W. Bush was running against John McCain. The callers asked questions like, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" Of course, the callers didn't mention that John McCain and his wife adopted a Bengali little girl, but the question itself swayed voters' opinions. Personally, I think this is one of the dirtiest tricks a politician can pull. It's also legal. But it's political, so if someone were doing it using state email addresses in which they were prohibited from politicking, that would be illegal. Dennis Richardson certainly crossed the line, and barely apologized after thousands of state workers replied in anger. This isn't the first time Richardson has embarrassed himself and our state, either. He once compared the Virginia Tech Shootings to the passage of legislation protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.  In that case, he did not apologize. Richardson is an embarrassment to his district and to the state of Oregon.

The nature of Richardson's first push poll was to ask state workers for ideas to make the state government leaner and more efficient, like a private business. The implications were that: a) the state was inefficient, and b) the state should be run like a business. But, like Rove's poll, there's no way within the poll to argue against those loaded assumptions.

I immediately sent Richardson an email reply. I wrote:

Rep. Richardson,
If the state wanted to follow the lead of the private sector, it would behave like a business and try to simultaneously cut costs and increase profits. That would mean tax increases to raise revenue. Now, you might not want to increase taxes during a recession, but if that's the case, don't pretend you are trying to emulate a business. Or, if that's how you think businesses should operate (all cost cutting and no increased revenue) then Heaven help the businesses in your district. I look forward to your reply.

To his credit, he did reply. Sort of. He wrote back:

Ben – I was focused more on how private businesses find ways to operate more efficiently, not suggesting the state raise taxes. 

Despite the curtness of his reply, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I wrote a thank you letter back, saying:

Representative Richardson,
Thank you for your reply. My concern is precisely the emphasis on efficiency with private business as a metaphor. Government cannot and should not function as a business. Although it should be concerned with spending taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently, this talking point is overused to a dangerous degree in times of tight budgets because it sounds better than cost cutting or reductions in services. I understand that phrases like those are politically unpopular, but the danger is that the public will actually come to expect the government to function like a business; to put profit before the public good, the short-term bottom line before the long term health of the state. Perhaps I am reading more into your request for input than you intended, but I got the sense that all the emphasis was on cost cutting. If that's the case, level with us, and acknowledge that shortfalls will not be managed by efficiencies alone. We need reductions in services or tax increases (probably both), and we need to have a grown-up conversation about that. Inexact metaphors only muddy the waters, putting off that conversation and making it more painful when the time comes. Personally, I think a healthy balance would involve maintenance of education spending (the long term health of the state), the elimination or reform of the kicker (something any economist would tell you is ridiculous) and an increase in the corporate minimum tax (corporations will not leave the state as long as we show them we place a high priority on providing them with highly educated employees who demand lower wages than people with commensurate education who live in places with much higher costs of living). I'm interested to know how you would strike that balance.
Again, thank you for your time and your reply.

What I didn't realize was that, by replying, I was now on Richardson's email list. Even when the state forced him to purge the emails he'd obtained improperly, I was still on there. So I was blessed with an even more infuriating email from Richardson the next month. This time he was railing against the teacher union in his own district, which was going on strike. Richardson wrote, "The union, on the other hand, is working for its members and not the students. This is what unions do. One official involved with the negotiations recalled that when an issue came up that would have cost $100,000, the District said there was no money to pay for it. The union representative’s response was the District could just lay off a teacher. Once again union representatives take the position, if you have to lay off teachers and cut school days to get the public to raise taxes and spend more money on education, then that is what you should do."

Furious, I responded immediately.

This is shameful. You are free to weigh in and bash teachers if you feel like it, but please don't think that people will be fooled when you assert that unions work against students. Teachers unions, from top to bottom, are composed of members. Members are teachers. Do you really believe teachers, people who have committed their lives to serving students, work against students? You may not understand that forcing a district to lay off a teacher rather than cut salaries is ultimately better for students, but it is; if districts keep cutting salaries, eventually they can't attract talented teachers and that hurts kids. When they fire teachers, as much as that is painful (it hurts other teachers as much as students, since it both increases every other teacher's workload and takes away one of their beloved colleagues) it creates a short term problem districts are motivated to fix, rather than a long term problem that can hurt kids for years. Unions (made of teachers) make these hard choices and always have kids in mind, even if the general public doesn't understand. Once upon a time, people trusted that teachers had their kids' interests in mind. That trust made our schools safer, more orderly places, and ultimately strengthened our communities. Now we have politicians actively disrespecting teachers in mass emails, then wondering why our schools can't command the same respect of parents that they once did. 

As I said, you are entitled to your views, and if you think teachers are villains out to hurt kids, that's your prerogative. But please don't believe you can hide behind the false distinction between teachers and the unions made up entirely of teachers. We're one and the same. If you want to maintain the respect of the teachers who are your constituents, you owe everyone on your mass email list an apology for your generalizations about all unions. 

Ben Gorman
Proud Public High School Teacher
Proud Union Member

This time I did not get a reply. However, thanks to the group Our Oregon, we now know what an apology letter from Dennis Richardson would look like. This is how he replied to someone who shared my concerns:

Do you realize that you are not in my district and cannot vote for me.  If my motives were political, I would not waste my time contacting those who cannot vote in my district.  For just a moment stop and consider that I may be sending this information to you for the benefit of informing Oregonians about what is taking place in our state.

Your email address will be deleted, and it will be your loss not mine.  Too bad your skepticism overpowers your ability to accept information from one who offers it for free and expecting nothing in return.

Best wishes and good bye, Dennis R

I have taken a moment to stop and consider Richardson's attempts to benefit us all. He has given me information about what is going on in my state. Unfortunately, what is going on is embarrassing, and he's the cause. Now, if Dennis Richardson wants to continue to benefit the people of his district and the people of Oregon, he should skip the next apology and just resign.



Anonymous said...

He's spamming me too. I'd like to make a contribution to his opponent, but can't find one. Please tell me he's not running unopposed.

Benjamin Gorman said...

It seems his only opponent is Richard Hake who's running for the Constitution Party. Shows how far right the options are there, but I would guess a guy running for the Constitution Party would be more reluctant to abuse government resources.