Today’s Courier Herald Column:
They’re back. Members of the Georgia General Assembly are in the process of returning to Atlanta for another 40 business days of legislating and governing. And as it has been every year since 1962, the unofficial beginning to the legislative session will be the Wild Hog Supper held at the Georgia Freight Depot. The event is sponsored by the Georgia Friends of Agriculture trade association and the $20 tickets sold to the event support the Georgia Food Bank Association.
The event is symbolic in that the only knives out are those to slice pulled pork. Those who will be adversaries the following morning gather in one room to eat barbecue, roasted corn, peach ice cream and other Georgia grown goodies. Democrats and Republicans alike, the event is quite open and accessible to all.
Most of Georgia’s statewide elected officials, members of the Congressional delegation, members of the General Assembly, and many local elected officials work the crowd. Alongside them are voters of all stripes, party activists and leaders, and of course lobbyists. There won’t be a gathering of this many officials without those whose job it is to influence them. But lobbyists are generally not in the spotlight or the highlight of the event. Quite the contrary, of all the events which government officials take part in each season, it remains one of the most open and transparent of them, with a feel that it represents the entire cross section of Georgians.
Any event with this many decision makers also draws the press, as news crews from across the state have an opportunity to get live interviews from a large number of officials all in one setup. And with the open media opportunity, there are always bound to be some that want to crash the party.
A group calling itself “United for the People Georgia” plans to protest the event, saying the tradition “…is symbolic in that lobbyists and legislators openly engorge together on pork. For a government by and for the people, the influence of money in politics must be eliminated.”
It’s ironic that a group who wants to end the special access by the moneyed and well-connected chooses an event that is one of the most open, and which benefits Georgia’s food banks as their symbolism of the influence of money and politics. But, as clearly stated by them, this is about symbolism.
In our current media age, a quick set of photographs in a 90 second TV news broadcast can convey whatever symbolism the brief framing allowed of our drive by news culture will allow. Images of elected officials meeting with the public over supper – a very southern symbol in itself of putting food as the centerpiece of common ground – can be construed by the mere mention of a protest that somehow it is “us” watching “them”. “Them” will be painted as those who are having a private party, making closed door deals, and making decisions that favor themselves rather than “us”.
Frankly, there are many of those events that will happen over the next 40 days. Yet they generally won’t be on public calendars, won’t have the press present, and won’t involve any Georgian who wants to donate $20 to a food bank (or ask their legislator for a ticket).
There will be a lot of talk about ethics this session. Hopefully, there will also be some action – and not just more window dressing of the topic. But it is important to keep the topic and those who we seek to regulate in perspective.
Ethics reform is not about trying to punish everyone who is part of our representative government because we suspect that they’re all up to no good just by being elected. It is about adopting processes and proper controls to ensure that our system of governing is open, transparent, and does not favor those on the inside at the expense of those of us who are subject to being governed.
The Wild Hog Supper is not a symbol of lobbyists and legislators openly engorging themselves on pork. Frankly, it’s a generally well known secret that most of the legislators don’t have time to eat there. That’s because they’re talking to those of “us” who take the time to visit with them, tell them our concerns, and ask what we can expect from them out of the next 40 days.
It’s important that in our quest to demand and achieve substantive ethics reform, we remember what it is about this system that we’re trying to save. Opportunities for individuals to meet and greet their elected officials should be high on that list.