Happened to catch HBO's documentary film, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, last night. I thought it might be mildly interesting, but it was transfixing. Following then-Washington D.C. Mayor Barry's descent into alcholism, drug abuse, and womanizing is a wild journey. And every rung lower he stooped he took his city right along with him.
What was most striking about the way it was perceived was the way white voters hated him (for damn good reason) and black voters just kept coming to his defense, saving him. Even when he was caught smoking crack by the feds on videotape and did a stint in prison, the voters kept putting him back in office. Just a few years ago he tested positive for cocaine again and yet he remains an elected city councilman.
And I kept thinking of Josephus Eggelletion as I watched it. This is a county commissioner who has been caught misuing his county-issued credit card, taking money from companies that do business with the county, and secretly lobbying for developers. None of it seems to register in his district. Most recently a developer of a controversial housing project that he voted for delivered more than $10,000 in cash to the Parkland Golf & Country Club for his membership.
His district reacts, literally, with cheers. Eggelletion even had a child with a former student of his at Dillard High School. The student, Angelita Sanders, convincingly tells the story of how the long-married Eggelletion first seduced her when she was a teenaged
student of his and took him to a secret bachelor's pad, beginning a years-long adulterous affair.
I thought that would knock him out of favor (if not into jail) even in the black community. Forget about it. The guy is still celebrated in black churches. And don't think it's because he's some great politician or champion for the people. He's a lackluster public official who spends more time on the golf course than with the people.
Now people may want to believe this kind of blind voters' allegiance occurs only in the black community, but that's not so. All you need to do is look at Stacy Ritter's support in the heavily Jewish condos of central Broward County. (Wow, a two-for-one on offending racial/ethnic groups). She has become "like a daughter" to a lot of them, so when she pulls corrupt insider deals with her unscrupulous lobbyist husband, they look the other way. When that same husband, Russ Klenet, hitches his wagon with a major-league con artist named Joel Steinger and Ritter votes on her own husband's legislation to protect the crook from regulators, the condo dwellers feign ignorance. I remember when I was telling Democratic activist (and profiteer) Norma Goldstein about Ritter's transgressions, she stopped me. "I don't want to hear!" she said and literally refused to listen.
The same can be said for any group or race. Look at the Daleys in Chicago for a bigger-than-life example. Go to a lot of small backwater towns in Kentucky and see what the townsfolk elect year after year in some of those places. Look at Miami's Cuban community, which has been rife with corrupt -- and popular -- politicians for decades. Present example: Miami Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, who was deeply steeped in an infamous mayoral fraud scandal in 1997. He was convicted of a felony, but that didn't stop him from winning office after he was implicated, an election journalist and author Ann Louise Bardach wrote in her 2002 book Cuba Confidential proved "the irrelevance of corruption in Miami."
Such misplaced allegiance is just a fact of politics and it shouldn't be forgotten that patronage always plays a role. But the blind loyalty is often more fervent in the black community, where it sometimes rises to a spiritual level. Remember, we're only seven generations away from slavery and a couple out from segregation, and the term "northwest" in Broward County is still code for "poor black neighborhoods." So the general us-versus-them mentality in the black community when it comes to politics is eminently understandable. But it's also frustrating to see shameless charlatans like Eggelletion profit from the misplaced sentiment.
I asked Elgin Jones, who works for the county's leading black newspaper, the South Florida Times, what it was like exposing Eggelletion over and over again and seeing him reelected all the same. Jones, a relentless investigator, has been in the churches and neighborhood meetings where Eggelletion has spoken and he says it's always the same.
"It's almost as if he's a movie star," Jones says. "When he shows up in some churches they are just happy to be in his presence. It's as if the world is picking on him and he's this great person who is working for the community, like a savior."
Jones says that when Eggelletion often opens his remarks, particularly when a scandal is still hot, with the same tired stance that boils down to: "They are coming after me because I'm black and they are picking on me."
The people cheer him when they hear this ridiculous argument.
"He's never challenged," says Jones. "Whether it's the church or a community meeting they won't challenge that idea because they will be ostracized on the spot if they speak up."
Group think at its worst. Jones says his work is appreciated in the black community, only people rarely praise him publicly. They pull him aside privately where no one will hear.
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"I get some resentment, but most black folks will take you aside and thank you for bringing the truth to light," he says. "But obviously that hasn't translated to the ballot box."
That's got to get tiresome.
"I just say, 'Here are the facts, here's what happened,'" he says. "I report on it. I'm not dismayed by the outcome. Because I don't think that's my role. My role is to expose and report the truth and the facts."
There are a lot of rumors afloat about an impending fall for Eggelletion. He's under state investigation and there's talk of federal involvement. But if Marion Barry's story teaches us anything, even an indictment might not be enough to stop the community that support Joe from electing him again and again.