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May 9, 2011

King of the Straw Men

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Some politicians thrive on bold, brash action. Others create their political success on grand visions and the ability to share that insight with voters.


The worst kind of politician is the type that prefers to pander, and the least appealing political panderer is the kind that creates a false argument, and then spends their time attacking the false argument they themselves created.


This tactic has always been known as the straw man. The idea is that a politician, struggling to create a sense of political viability, builds a false premise through constant repetition. If they’re good, they get a small band of adherents to sign onto their fake argument. Once they have a little momentum behind the idea of the boogeyman under the bed, they lug a soapbox around ranting about the need to kill the boogeyman.


We have our specialist in this tactic right here in Frederick County. One-term former County Commissioner Kai Hagen deserves a crown to legitimize his obvious reign over the straw men he himself has created.


Mr. Hagen has made the development industry the focus of his political straw man creation machine, dating back to his service on the Board of County Commissioners. Interestingly, during his first campaign, he carefully walked a rhetorical fence when speaking about developers.


He probably made the political calculation that it wouldn’t help an outsider if he were to seem too radical in his position on matters of growth and development. Many of his campaign statements and literature featured high-minded references to vision, compatibility and sustainability, all code words for supposed balance in dealing with land development.


It worked. He was elected a county commissioner, and his election numbers suggest it wasn’t only the tree hugging, anti-growth voters who cast a vote for him. Once in office, the reality of his positions became clearer. He was emboldened by fellow Commissioners David Gray and Lennie Thompson, both of whom had a long established record of opposing growth proposals.


With a few notable exceptions, Commissioner Hagen was clear with his votes. He did try to strike a compromise regarding the Lake Linganore development, a rights and responsibilities agreement that might have served as a model for other subdivisions. In spite of his efforts, the other anti-growth votes of that Board of County Commissioners doomed it to failure.


Having a four-year record of staunch growth opposition, Mr. Hagen was in the unenviable position of having a record to run on. It’s much easier to run when a voter has only your words to use as a guide. The real test of political viability is the concept of re-election, as a voter can be equipped with both your words and your votes.


An old friend and former General Assembly colleague used to say: “Anyone can get elected to the House of Delegates once. The true test is to win re-election after having cast thousands of votes over four years.” True then, and still true today.


In Mr. Hagen’s case, that combination of words and actions proved politically fatal.


So now, out of office, Mr. Hagen desires to find a means through which he can work his way back onto a ballot. The current Board of County Commissioners gave him the perfect platform; they decided to form a charter-writing commission.


In Kai Hagen’s view, the charter commission is loaded with people connected to the development industry. His inference is clear: these people were chosen because they will craft a charter that favors the land development industry.


There you have it, the perfect straw man. Mr. Hagen tells you that since a few lawyers have development connections, the Farm Bureau rep spoke out in favor of a farmer’s right to develop, and one prominent commercial real estate developer serves on the commission, their future work product will be unacceptable.


He’s using that particular straw man to legitimize a referendum effort leading to a vote to potentially replace the charter commission members appointed by the Board of County Commissioners with people who share Mr. Hagen’s view.


This effort, a seemingly noble exercise of rights granted under the state constitution, is – in fact – a blatant attempt to reverse whatever effect the Blaine Young-led county commissioners might have on the future political makeup of the county.


Mr. Hagen and his followers fear that a successful charter drive, especially one influenced by the person most responsible for banishing Mr. Hagen to the desert of political irrelevance, might give them a hold on power that may never be undone.


The most compelling aspect of this drama is the idea that had the tables been turned, and a Board of County Commissioners with Mr. Hagen onboard had chosen a charter drafting team, he would have chosen a commission that was loaded with people that share his slow-growth mentality. In that event, he would have been an outspoken critic of any attempt by the development community to alter the makeup to achieve better balance.


His latest straw man is the most egregious example of the tactics of political boogeyman creation. He has posted a comment on the Frederick News Post web forum that members of the current Board of County Commissioners “want to replace all of the members” of certain boards and commissions.”


No proof, no verification and no evidence. It’s just true because Kai Hagen says it. Now that he’s written it, he’ll spend time and energy attacking the county commissioners for holding the opinion that only he has expressed. The worst part is that some people will actually believe, if only because he said it!


Hopefully, voters can only be misled by this trick one time. In Mr. Hagen’s case, we’ve already had our experience.


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