(1) Jim Wooten pens a classic on PSC Member Angela Speir; & (2) I still like the idea of the citizen-politician as the best sort of public servant.
There's not much demand for PB&J Politicians.
We say we like them. We're always looking for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the straight arrow of the 1939 Frank Capra classic.
But, truth is, they don't fare all that well in the real world of politics.
Take Angela Speir, for example. After one six-year term as a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission, Speir opted not to run again this year. Could she have been re-elected? Probably, though she'd have a tough race against the veteran politico known during his legislative career, and later on the PSC, as Lauren "Bubba" McDonald.
Times change, though, and as evidence thereof, Bubba the Democrat is now Lauren the Republican. It's a new Georgia. He's the best-known of the four candidates — two Republicans and two Democrats — qualifying to succeed her.
Six years ago, Speir was an unknown, under-the-radar 34-year-old who spent little beyond the qualifying fee in a race against the better-known McDonald. When the votes were counted, she had 924,015 to McDonald's 911,772. The upset was such that, for awhile at least, she was referred to as the "Accidental Regulator."
Republicans just coming into power under the Gold Dome would have done well to emulate Speir. "I've never let a lobbyist even buy me a cup of coffee," she says. Some in newfound positions of power under the Gold Dome do more than take a cup of coffee; they use lobbyists as credit cards, just as the good ol' boys had before them.
For Speir, the perks of power held no sway. She declined the Crown Victoria that taxpayers provide members of the Public Service Commission. She declines, too, to accept tickets, gifts, junkets — favors in all forms. She does not accept meals from lobbyists — or journalists. For this interview, her suggestions include the snack bar at Agnes Scott College. "I usually eat a PB&J [peanut butter and jelly sandwich] at my desk, so I don't know of many quiet places to meet," she had said when I first proposed that we talk over lunch.
"You don't have to ply me with food or beverages to give me the facts," she recalls telling those who wished to influence her when she first joined the PSC. "Whatever you have to say, say it on the record in a committee room." She continues:
"I wasn't going to tell them how I was going to vote [on rate cases], and I wouldn't tolerate off-the-record conversations with things they wouldn't say before every interested party."
One of her crowning achievements as a commissioner was to get the PSC to agree to a rule that would ban private talks between commissioners and those with business before the agency during the final weeks of deliberations when proposed settlements are being discussed. That rule, she said when it was finally approved last August, would move the PSC toward decisions "based solely on the evidence on the record and not on backroom deals."
When she talks about her six years on the PSC, it's with the refreshing innocence of a schoolgirl idealist, a Miss Smith Goes to Atlanta. "I didn't run for office so I could make a living," she says. "I looked on it as a way to make a difference. It's a very humbling calling to be a public servant. I feel like I'm there to represent 9 million people and that they are there with me, counting on me to make a fair, honest and ethical decision."
As she leaves the PSC, perhaps to work with children in a nonprofit, perhaps to start a family, she's not certain what will come next. "I'm 40 years old; I've got a lot of life left and I'm really excited about that," she said. "There's more to life than utility regulation."
Whatever's ahead, Speir is certain of the legacy of her regulatory career. "I want to look back and know that I have done everything possible to honor the Lord and the people of Georgia with courage, strength and integrity."
PB&J Politicians. God bless 'em — and the mamas and daddies that raise 'em.
Not an old-timer like Sid and Jim Wooten; can't say you have heard of the movie classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Then read on from my 8-14-04 post entitled "The citizen-politician -- Gone the way of the Oldsmobile?":[You have heard of an Oldsmobile, right?]
One of the most popular American films of all-time and a perennial holiday favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life," was not a huge hit with either critics or audiences when it debuted in December 1946. But it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart), and Best Director (Frank Capra). After slipping quickly into obscurity, it began appearing on television occasionally in the late 1950s. But when the film's copyright lapsed in 1973, "It's a Wonderful Life" quickly became a staple of American TV programming between Thanksgiving and Christmas and belatedly earned its rightful place in the lexicon of American popular culture.
And a staple it has been at our family and probably yours over the holidays for years. I know you know of other movies starring Jimmy Stewart, but what about ones directed by Frank Capra. And even better than that, starring Stewart and directed by Capra.
I knew you knew. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." This classic argues that the average man, decent of heart and pure in his intentions, was the best sort of public servant. It is a logical myth for a democracy to cling to: The Republic's salvation can be found in the people's wisdom.
Tales of ordinary men bravely venturing into the public arena are always tales of naiveté. And they always involve an encounter with corruption. Stewart faced off with a dastardly senator in "Mr. Smith." As with the encounter with the banker in "a Wonderful Life," decency triumphs.
And what of the great democratic myth that high office should be accessible? By the time "Mr. Smith" premiered in 1939, it was already an exercise in nostalgia. More than 10 years earlier Walter Lippmann had observed that mass media and increasingly complex social relations had made any expression of the people's "common will" impossible. By necessity, he argued, government should be a partnership of scientific experts and professional politicians. Only such elites could grasp the issues and make informed decisions, checked by voters who rallied behind one party or another.
Yes, elites can get things wrong, sometimes badly wrong. But most of the time they couldn't possibly do worse than the citizen-innocent. We love to hate "professional politicians," but like it or not, politics is a profession. Even the attributes of the political class that we claim to despise are, more often than not, virtues. We sometimes recoil at Bill Clinton's cool and LBJ's cunning, but how else are competing interests brought to consensus?
Most of the above concerning "Mr. Smith" is from the 8-13-04 Wall Street Journal article by a Noah, "a television producer in Los Angeles." I threw in the "Wonderful Life" stuff. (The article is about the "American Candidate," "an election-season reality show [that] revises the unreal idea that average citizens should rescue politics.")
I still like the idea of the citizen-politician, the idea that the average man or woman, decent of heart and pure in his or her intentions, was the best sort of public servant. I know, I know -- I'm old-fashioned.
Thanks Jim for bringing this background on Ms. Speir to our attention. May God bless her, her kind and her ideals.