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As Long as We Remember...

August 24, 2006

Throw the Bums Out

Tony Soltero

I never thought there would be a time when I'd feel sorry for Roscoe Bartlett. And I can't say I really do, even now, seeing that he remains the favorite to win re-election to his eighth term in Congress (that's five more terms than Mr. Term Limits originally pledged to serve, for those keeping score at home).

But his recent letter to The Frederick News-Post, in which he tried to explain away his nonsupport for extension of the landmark Voting Rights Act, turned out to be about as disastrously timed as the traffic lights on Route 40 during rush hour.

In his letter, Representative Bartlett claims that racism has been all but erased from the American consciousness: "Forty-one years [after the original passage of the Voting Rights Act], there are individuals who are racist, but I am grateful that the cancer of institutional discrimination no longer plagues our country or these states."

Unfortunately for our congressman, this statement was published in the newspaper the same week a national lawmaker, Senator George Allen (R., VA), loudly hurled a racial slur - twice - at an American of Indian descent who happened to be videotaping a rally of his; straight into a camera; just a couple hundred miles south of us; in the state over the river.

While even Representative Bartlett wouldn't disagree that individual racists continue to infest America (he admits to as much in his letter), when such racists include lawmakers with presidential aspirations like Senator Allen, it's more than a bit presumptuous to argue that "institutional discrimination" is no longer a problem in this country.

And given that racial minorities continue to disproportionately occupy the lowest economic rungs in our nation, and that Republicans continue to employ blatant race-baiting in their campaigns, it's pretty obvious that (to use Roscoe's analogy) not only do we need to continue applying the chemotherapy to the cancer of racism, but maybe it's also time for some radiation treatments as well. After all, cancer has a nasty way of coming back when it's not fully extinguished.

And of course, given the electoral shenanigans that suppressed the vote in low-income minority districts in the last presidential election - especially in swing-state Ohio, where poor inner-city residents had to endure six-hour lines to vote - the idea that we don't need to enforce a Voting Rights Act in this country is preposterous. Of course, we need to have a government that actually cares about free elections to enforce it, but that's a subject for another column.

Dr. Bartlett's stated excuse for not supporting the bill's extension was that it contained a requirement that ballots be printed in non-English languages, and that this would "be construed as an invitation by the government for non-citizens, including illegal aliens, to vote," but even this is a strawman worthy of "Wizard of Oz" auditions.

There are plenty of non-citizens who speak English perfectly well, and plenty of citizens who don't. That's simply the reality. And despite the congressman's protestations, a prospective citizen is required to have only a basic knowledge of English to become an American - a scope of knowledge that doesn't necessarily cover deciphering ballot initiatives, which can often be confusing enough to native English speakers.

Printing ballots in multiple languages helps facilitate the voting process (which should be the aim for a democracy) for those citizens who might not have full English proficiency. An illegal immigrant can recite "Hamlet" if he wants to - without the proper documents, he's still not getting a ballot. Still, the rider to the bill helped the congressman push the "scary-illegal-alien" buttons that turn out his electoral base so reliably. I suspect this was his real agenda.

It's actually quite remarkable that a seven-term congressman would publish such a weak justification of a controversial vote. I don't know if his staff really believes that Sixth District voters are uninterested enough to overlook the bland platitudes offered therein, or if Mr. Bartlett just thinks he can get away with any half-hearted boilerplate statement on racism because it's just an issue that his constituents don't really care all that much about.

If it's the latter, that's extremely unfortunate. It flies in the face of the idea that racism is in decline in America - after all, Senator Allen knew exactly what he was saying when he insulted the young photographer, and he probably figured that the racial slur would gain him votes in Virginia. It's heartening to see that apparently it's had the opposite effect, but the fact that he retains any support at all isn't exactly a tribute to the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I do not know if Mr. Bartlett himself is a racist, and I am not accusing him of being one. I know plenty of people who aren't racists who nonetheless naively believe that there's no discrimination in America anymore.

But his letter indicates that he is completely out-of-touch on this issue, and unqualified to lead on it, among others. And it fits into a disturbing pattern of detachment from reality that plagues many long-time Washington officeholders.

I would hope that favored Democratic challenger Andrew Duck, the Bosnia and Iraq veteran who (unlike Mr. Bartlett) is actually grounded in reality, will seize the opportunity to get the message through to Sixth District voters. We deserve representation from someone who's actually a member of the rational world, instead of the Republican Beltway Bubble where Iraq is a spectacular foreign-policy success; where the economy's humming like a Mercedes; and where the deficit is nothing more than one big number with lots of commas. And where racism doesn't exist.

That movie is over. It's time to throw the bums out.

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