Sunday, October 12, 2008

The whole story 4

It took me a long time to recover my emotional equilibrium after Charlie See refused to print my first post-column letter to the editor of the Hampshire Review. Like most humans, I suppose, I had been treated with disloyalty a few times in my life, by friends. But this was my worst experience. To let people think that I shared equal responsibility for the ugly tone into which “Thinking Locally” had descended in recent years, when I had been trying for years to get Charlie to use his position as editor to stop it, was just too unfair.

Finally, after a year of not writing, and watching the war in Iraq turn sour, with the 2004 election coming up, and seeing all the elements of fascism creeping further into American culture and government, I decided to start writing again. In January 2004, I sent a letter to the editor discussing the parallels between Bush and Hitler, including the torture charges that had just come to light (a small excerpt from my first article for Online Journal, “Paranoid Shift,” which appeared online a few days later). The Review printed it.

As might have been expected, the letter ignited a burst of gleeful outrage from the local trolls who had been regular respondents to my late column (and obviously missed it), and an exchange ensued for several weeks. I continued submitting letters and op-eds to the Review for the next four years, until the one almost two weeks ago about our lawsuit against the legislature.

Until that most recent submission, only two pieces I sent them were not printed—a letter and an op-ed. They both had one thing in common with the first letter they didn’t print: they discussed the reasons I quit writing the column in the Review. They were the only ones I ever submitted that did so. I never received a phone call asking for changes, or explaining why they were rejected. Nor was the subject ever mentioned during the occasional times I would visit Charlie in his office.

At the beginning of 2005, the Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government was gearing up to re-introduce the legislation setting up a county referendum that had passed the West Virginia Senate, but not the House, in the 2004 session (see my post, “Reflections on a lawsuit,” for details). The chief opponent of the bill in the House had been Hampshire County’s delegate, Jerry Mezzatesta. But Jerry had been defeated in the 2004 general election, tarnished by a scandal involving shifting state money from the county’s special services workshop to local firehouses, as a way of currying political favor with the volunteer firefighter community. (He was also in the dubious position of having been recently hired by the county board of education to write grants, while simultaneously serving as the chair of the House Education Committee, which dispenses education money.)

He was defeated by a Republican woman, Ruth Rowan, whose son-in-law was a member of our committee and had written the first draft of the petition. So we knew that she was sympathetic to the fact that our petition was the first one in state history where the legislature had failed to do its constitutional duty. The problem was, the committee’s leaders (in a group that was very informally organized), for various personal reasons, were not able to put in the energy needed to jumpstart the legislation, and keep the initiative going. So one snowy January night, when only a handful of us made it to a meeting, my friend Frank Whitacre, the county assessor, asked me if I would take the ball.

It was not something I was particularly interested in doing, not only for the work involved, but also because I’m something of a political lightning rod in this county, and it might be bad PR to have me seen as the campaign’s leader (although the “save the hospital” referendum I had championed just two years before had passed by a 3-1 margin, so I knew I wasn’t total political poison). But it was a cause I thought was important, and since there was nobody else who was willing to do it, I took it on.

After talking to Ruth, confirming her support and getting her pledge to re-introduce the legislation, I wrote a draft bill (mostly a rewrite of the original bill, with the bad parts edited out) and put her in touch with my friend in the Attorney General’s office to answer her legal questions. I’ve had primary responsibility for trying to get the bill passed every year since, writing all the press releases and dealing with the media, coordinating the committee’s lobbying efforts, recruiting our pro bono attorney when we decided to sue the legislature for their inaction, and traveling to Charleston for every judicial hearing. So as you can see, I have a lot of personal investment in this issue.

We didn’t get much cooperation from the Hampshire Review. I think Charlie, who had totally supported my efforts in the hospital campaign, had initially been intrigued by the changes in county government we proposed. But electoral changes had brought his political allies into county office, and had gotten rid of the good ol’ boy network that he openly admitted to me he had hired me to go after (he often told me that he admired my “courage,” by which I thought he meant that I was a big enough fool to rush in where angels like him fear to tread). So he no longer seemed to favor the proposals in our petition. Too radical, I suspect, for a centrist conservative like Charlie.

The articles he ran about the issue were either studiously neutral or negative, from our perspective. So I regularly submitted press releases reporting events and changes in status in the legislature and in the court. They would appear, instead of an article from a Review reporter, somewhere inside the front section, often below the fold, and at least on one occasion, with important info edited out. But at least we were getting our spin into print (a common practice with community groups and small town newspapers, not some special treatment we were getting). The op-eds were similarly downplayed. One time, my commentary ran in the middle of a large box, with the title as a subhead under an old piece from a long-deceased county citizen.

The only reason the issue got any coverage at all in the Review (we got much more prominent coverage in the Charleston Gazette and Cumberland Times-News) is its historic nature, which even Charlie had to admit to. Our lawsuit goes to the heart of what American democracy and republican government are all about—the right of the people to choose the form of government under which their democracy will function. If the West Virginia Supreme Court overturns the clear language of their 1981 opinion, affirming that right in the strongest terms, it will be a terrible loss for the people of this state.

I wish I could say that I’m sorry I emailed “Fuck you” to Charlie’s wife, Sallie, the Review’s current editor (Charlie’s the publisher now), when she took back her promise from two days before, that she would publish my op-ed on the Supreme Court hearing (see “Intercepted email”). But unfortunately, I’m not sorry. It turned out to be just the catharsis I needed to purge the demons of anger and betrayal and supreme injustice that have haunted me ever since Charlie refused to print that first letter. It was both an emotional and physical release, which I knew deep in my soul I needed. The next day, I gave one of my best vocal performances in my life onstage at the Burlington Apple Harvest Festival. My body and my voice never felt so free.

Yet that still leaves the mystery of why exactly Sallie (and probably Charlie) changed her mind, and sent me that email. Was it something political? Did I make the argument too well for a position that they oppose, so that’s why they wanted a straight news story instead? Was I too disrespectful in my language about venerable state institutions, the legislature and the Supreme Court? Or was it something else?

When I called her two days before that, to apologize for getting the address wrong when I first sent the op-ed and to discuss publication, I told her about my new blog. Did she or Charlie then look at my first post, “Radical Pantheism,” and see that I had once again given an account about quitting the Review, and decide that they didn’t want to bring any attention to the blog—which an op-ed from me might, but a press release with the byline, “Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government,” wouldn’t?

That’s what I first thought. And that’s what so consumed me with anger, the night I got the email from Sallie, that I couldn’t sleep, and had to get out of bed in the middle of the night and go to the computer and pound out a reply, and post it on the internet. It was the last link in a chain of personal betrayals that was finally strangling me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to break free, to get it out of my system. I’ll never forget the sense of complete relief I felt when I hit the “send” button.

But a couple of days later, I got an email from the Review’s religion columnist, Don Kesner, that made me think that Sallie’s broken promise may not have had anything at all to do with either the politics of the lawsuit or the personal politics of our dysfunctional, disgruntled employee/employer relationship.

Next time, I’ll conclude this seemingly endless saga with what I was initially hoping to get to this time: why I think Sallie, in her heart of hearts, really thought she was doing the right thing in turning down my op-ed.

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