By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Americans are going to have to take a close look at the way we elect our leaders, former Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale told the Water Valley Rotary Club.
Dale spoke at the club’s meeting Tuesday, June 2. Snooky Williams, who introduced Dale, said, “George has been a lot of things. He’s been a high school teacher and coach. Through the 32 years as Insurance Commissioner he was a great friend to Yalobusha County, the state of Mississippi, and the insurance public.”
Williams emphasized how much Dale had helped Mississippi insurance agents to have a product to sell. “We sell less than one percent of all the insurance premiums in the United States,” he said of the Mississippi market share adding that many of the companies saw no reason to even sell in the state.
Williams said that Dale was always picking on him. But, he got him back one time at the Neshoba County Fair when the Insurance Commissioner was speaking on campaign finance reform.
Williams went around to the back of the stage were all the reporters and cameras were stationed. “I folded up a hundred dollar bill in my hand. When George walked off that stage, I shook hands with him and gave him that hundred dollar bill. I said that it was the best speech I had ever heard on campaign finance reform.”
Dale quickly added, “He took it back.”
“He put that thing in his pocket” Williams countered. “None of the TV cameras caught it and the reporters didn’t ask him anything about it. But, I think George was a little irritated at me.”
Williams added that although he and Dale had been on different sides of insurance issues, “We had some great times together.”
Williams said that the former Insurance Commissioner serves on the board of trustees of Mississippi College and is senior public policy advisor in insurance regulatory, governmental and legislative matters for the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.
Dale thanked Williams for the introduction and said that the hundred dollar bill passing was “just one of the many times Snooky got something over on me.”
He also thanked the Rotarians for allowing him to speak. “If you are the former Insurance Commissioner you don’t get many invitations. Folks aren’t as quick about returning your calls.”
Dale said that he had served with eight governors and gone through 36 legislative sessions. “Lord knows how many special sessions. I lost count of them.”
Dale said that one of the interesting people he met while in office was James O. Eastland. “Senator Eastland was well known throughout the country. He was President pro tempore of the Senate. Third in succession to the President of the United States from Doddsville, Mississippi. One of the most powerful men in the Senate.”
Eastland had accepted an invitation from the Waynesboro Rotary Club to speak during one of his many campaigns, according to Dale. The topic was to be the economy. “Eastland knew nothing about the economic. Cared nothing about the economic. So, his aide, the late George Wynn, wrote him a speech on the economy.”
Eastland never looked at the speech, Dale said. When he started reading, he got down only a few paragraphs and said, “Damn if I believe all this.”
After telling several humorous stories, Dale delivered the serious portion of his talk to the Rotarians. He said, “Outside of my friends, my family, and my church, the political process is one that I honor and appreciate. And, I appreciate this system that has allowed a country boy like me of limited means to be able to serve in a statewide public office for 32 years.”
He added that his remarks were those of a former politician who dearly loves and respects the democratic process. But, he wanted to point out some of the weaknesses in the system and he believes we are going to have to take a close look at how we elect our leaders.
Dale quoted historian Theodore White: “The flood of money that gushes into politics today is a pollution of democracy.”
He also quoted Adlai Stevenson who said, “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal – that you can gather votes like box tops – is, I think, the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.”
Dale got especially serious when he used the words of the communist dictator Joseph Stalin: “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
He said that he had followed the electoral process his entire life, “I have seen this system deteriorate in certain areas and it is shameful.”
It is difficult to get any changes made, said Dale, because the people who can do something about the problems won and they are in office. “Those of us who advocate change are looked on as whiners or poor losers.”
He added that the political process has gotten too expensive and anyone without personal wealth or access to campaign funds is not a viable candidate. “I don’t think our forefathers ever intended for offices to be limited to those who have financial means or have access to money.”
Dale also pointed out that a few years ago the Mississippi Legislature, in an effort to keep down opponents, moved the qualifying deadline from June 3 to March 3 which placed it in the middle of the session.
The campaign contribution reporting laws, he said, only affect the honest people. Third party organizations with lots of funds are now allowed to give freely. These groups can be for or against a candidate and they have practically no reporting requirements.
According to Dale, the Democratic and Republican parties route large amounts of money to particular candidates without having to be reported to the Secretary of State. “In criminal terms you call that money laundering, but in politics it’s legal.”
“We’ve allowed the church to become way to involved in the political process,” he said adding that he wasn’t saying a Christian’s responsibility to be a good citizen shouldn’t be allowed.
“Even though our tax laws are very clear that a church or its minister cannot be involved in the church is to continue to have their tax exemption.”
Today, he said, many candidates make contributions to black preachers who influence their congregations with sample ballots. “It is unfortunate that a people who fought so hard for the privilege to vote have chosen to sell that right for such a small amount.”
Dale added that improper influence wasn’t limited to black churches. He gave examples that included a prominent Rankin County Baptist minister who told his congregation that they couldn’t endorse a candidate because of the tax laws. The minister said that they should instead pray for their candidates. “In his prayer he called the names of every candidate that he was for.”
The former insurance commissioner gave other examples including direct mail and “push calls” that are disguised as telephone polls, but ask slanted questions designed to influence voters.
“Campaigns have become too focused on personal attacks,” Dale said, “and not enough of an individual’s responsibility and qualifications.”
He offered some recommendations that he would like to see implemented:
• Require reporting all campaign contributions above a certain amount including third party contributions;
• Prohibit fundraisers anytime the legislature is in session;
• Charge the qualifying date from March 3 back to June 3;
• Have the candidates for administrative offices run as independents. Dale said that the last recommendation would never happen. But, he couldn’t understand how the offices of insurance commissioner, agricultural commissioner, treasurer, and secretary of state – which are administrative offices – ever got tied up in politics.