Columns » Ernest Dumas

Elliott v. Griffin


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Unless you're hypnotized by the competition between a chameleon Democrat and a mannequin Republican, forget about the campaign for the U. S. Senate for a while.

The really intriguing election, the one that will tell us and the world more about who we are, is for Congress from the Second District. That is the race between state Senator Joyce Elliott, the Democrat, and Tim Griffin, a political stealth agent who burst on the public three years ago as the cat's paw in the big Justice Department scandal that forced the resignation of the attorney general of the United States.

The conventional wisdom is that Elliott can't win because she is black, a woman and represents Little Rock's liberal precincts while the rest of Pulaski County and the outlying counties are conservative and Republican. After all, the story goes, Rep. Vic Snyder won seven terms by winning Pulaski County big and getting just enough votes in the other seven counties to squeak by. What chance would Elliott have?

It is phony wisdom. Snyder split the district with Bud Cummins in his first race in 1996, four counties each, although he won easily. In the next six elections Snyder lost only five of 48 counties, including the home counties of his Republican opponents, and those by small margins.

But the big question that worried Democrats have been asking is whether an African American woman, no matter how popular she is in her city, can get elected in a heavily white district. Arkansas is the only state of the old Confederacy never to have been represented in Congress by a black person. Superb black candidates in the First and Second districts did not come close.

Snyder, who knows the district very well, says whether a black woman can win is the wrong question. He framed the right question a little differently. I'll frame it this way: Can a brilliant woman who has a sterling record of problem solving in a body of conservative white men defeat a political functionary whose scheming personal ambition humiliated an administration and brought down the nation's chief law-enforcement officer?

Does that put too fine a point on Tim Griffin's accomplishments to date? What else recommends him for the job of representing the 700,000 people of central Arkansas in Washington, where the job is to work with the rest of Congress to get things done?

Griffin's career in Washington was not solving problems but finding the tools to destroy members of the other party. He did opposition research for the Republican Party, searching records for offhand remarks that Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and others might have made that could be twisted into something stupid or outrageous and feeding them to the media. He developed tricky ways to keep people from voting for Democrats, such as getting their voter registrations canceled if they were off fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was so good at it that he was promoted to the White House, where he was a scout for Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's political manager.

Griffin wanted a political career of his own, and that's when it got dicey. Rove decided a few U. S. attorneys were not using their prosecutorial powers in the best interests of their party, by either prosecuting Republicans or else not charging Democrats, and the Justice Department was instructed to get rid of them. First, they fired Carol Lam, who had sent the popular Republican congressman Duke Cunningham to prison for eight years for taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors. Then they fired seven others, including the aforementioned Bud Cummins, a thoroughly good Republican.

Federal prosecutors are political appointees but the rules of justice had always been that politics ended when they were sworn in. Even-handed justice was their sworn duty.

When the firestorm broke, the first line of defense at the Justice Department and the White House was to lie. Cummins, like the others, was dismissed for poor job performance, they said. But Cummins, like the others, had rave job evaluations. Finally, at least in Cummins' case, it was admitted that the White House political office, namely Karl Rove, just wanted to give Tim Griffin a leg up. Being a U. S. attorney is a good stepping-stone to elective office. Griffin sent Rove a grateful email: "Btw my wife is pregnant. We are thinking about naming him karl. Lol."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales couldn't give up the lie totally. He assured Arkansas's two senators that Griffin would be appointed in the usual way and appear before the Judiciary Committee to answer question like every other political appointee. But Griffin was not going to answer any questions. Emails subsequently showed that they planned all along to put Griffin in the office by a never-used secret provision of the Patriot Act, which allowed him to bypass confirmation questioning. Senators Pryor and Lincoln, joined by conservative Republican senators, called for Gonzales to resign. Eventually he did.

Griffin got to be the U. S. attorney for the eastern district for a few months, resigning when the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee decided to question him about his vote-suppression activities in the 2000 election.

So the better question is, how likely and logical is it that voters will elect a person to work for them in Congress who could never stand to answer questions from the men and women who would be his colleagues?


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