- How is it that the American Congress today includes so many incompetent people who have neither the skills, smarts or character to serve as legislators?
- How is it that the we have elected officials who came to Washington, not to serve the interests of the people, but to promote one single cause like not increasing taxes, or deregulating industry?
- How did America get to the point that we have politicians leading our nation and running for the Presidency who don’t believe in science and openly disparage civil liberties, human rights, immigrants, science and intellectualism?
Where did America go wrong? This short story offers a parable about the politics of a small town where one rich family was able to protect themselves and their financial bottom-line by controlling the local media and making sure that they “owned” as many local elected officials as possible.
GREED DESTROYS A TOWN
David Hock angrily hung up his desk phone. He was exasperated. All those snide jokes about him creating political monsters that would eventually turn on him were coming true.
Virgil Pick was a moron. Hock knew that when he encouraged the former sanitation engineer (aka: garbage man) to run for town council. He thought if he financed Virgil’s campaign and regularly briefed him on important issues, Virgil would turn out to be another dependable vote on the council.
Hock was Pick’s political mentor and public advocate. Just last week, a reporter from the Surly Gazette asked Hock what he thought of Virgil’s suggestion to a Sunday crowd at the local shooting range, that “Jews and fags make for great moving targets?” With and impish smile of embarrassment, Hock observed that Virgil was basically a “good man who just needed a little more polish befitting an elected official.”
Now the SOB wouldn’t promise Hock his vote on tomorrow’s important vote at the town council meeting. Damn fool, “I made him and I’ll break him,” Hock mumbled to no one in particular.
The town charter was clear, at least 3/4 or the town council members had to vote for any proposal to increase property taxes or to seek capital financing for any new municipal projects. As of this moment it appeared that 4 out of the 7 members of the Surly town council would vote against the proposal.
For the first time since he started meddling in town politics, Hock felt things were spiraling out of control. He was worried, and for good reason.A REAL “CHURCH LADY”
Hock wasn’t surprised that Sarah Bachmann wasn’t going to vote for the bill. While she was happy to take his sizable campaign donation, she didn’t take orders from anyone. In fact, the town’s most ornery religious-crank had more passion than smarts and was proud to tell you that she “answered to no one but Jesus.”
While not the minister of Surly’s, Church of Divine Truth, Sarah certainly acted like she had a monopoly on knowing God’s will. She viewed the town and for that matter much of the world as being divided between good and evil and it was she who got to decide who was in which camp.
Hock befriended Sarah years ago when he realized how her angry rhetoric at PTA and town-hall meetings intimidated people. While he personally thought she was a first class nut-job, he would sooner have the nut-job as a friend than an enemy.
Bachmann’s agenda was simple, maintain Surly as a 1950‘s-circa Midwest backwater: unassuming, simple, culturally and socially uncluttered by the outside world. Any suggestion of change sparked her indignation. And if you didn’t agree with her point of view, Sarah Bachmann had no hesitation publicly questioning your morality, ethics or standing with Lord. She was a force to be reckoned with and a damn powerful ally to have on your side.A PRINCE OF A GUY
Peter Prince was another council-member who owed his seat to David Hock. But Prince was determined to make Surly as undesirable a place as possible for African-Americans, Latinos and any other non-whites who might be thinking of calling Surly, home. “America is for Americans” he repeatedly intoned. Hock laughed to himself every time he heard Prince express the sentiment. Years earlier, over more than a few beers, Prince got all teary-eyed talking about the challenges his immigrant parents faced when they settled in America. Yea, “America is for Americans” that Peter Prince approved of. No, the guy was not the sharpest tool in the shed.
Prince had repeatedly made it clear to Hock that he would not vote for the proposal at the council meeting. Nothing good could come from the town raising taxes, improving the schools and all that. “We’ll just end up attracting more undesirables” he proclaimed. Prince would be damned before he would see one dime of his taxes used to educate some “colored or Muslim kid who would eventually kill a good American.”A LITTLE HOCK-SURLY HISTORY
It was back in the mid-twentieth century that the Brothers-Hock, David and Chuck, saw their many investments and businesses in the small Midwestern town of Surly start to generate serious money. They owned the town’s supermarket, a car dealership and an ever-expanding fertilizer business. They were the richest people in Surly and its largest employer.
As their fortunes grew, so did their tax obligations. The Hock brothers considered themselves philanthropists when it came to making voluntary, tax-deductible donations to charities of their choosing. But they never liked signing over their hard-earned money to the government. Taxation to their thinking, was nothing less than legalized pick-pocketing.WHY DID THE SMALL TOWN NEED A SECOND NEWSPAPER?
Back in 1992 when one of Surly’s two physicians, Dale More, suggested to the town council that Hock’s fertilizer business might be polluting the town’s water table, David recognized that his family’s financial security might well be determined by their capacity to control the flow of information and the politics of the small town. He needed a way to inform and “educate people” about the “truth,” his truth.
While Chuck had reservations about starting a second paper to compete with The Gazette which had been publishing in Surly for over a century, David thought starting their own newspaper might yet prove to be the single best investment they ever made.
It didn’t take long for Hock’s new paper, The Beaver Dispatch (BD) to get going. One of the first targets of the paper’s “Off the Record” gossip column was Dr. More. Unsubstantiated stories about his education, personal life and mistakes in prescribing drugs for his patients brought an end to his local practice. He and his family left town less than a year after he raised the issue of the town’s polluted drinking water.
The BD was always investigating the town’s municipal departments in an effort to identify real or imagined fraud and waste. Hock made sure that the BD published editorials that disputed the necessity of every new capital project proposed by municipal department heads or the town council. Whether it was building a new high school, fixing the lights on main street or buying a couple of new fire trucks for first time in 30 years, the BD made it quite clear that the good folks of Surly just didn’t need such “extravagant” expenditures.
RECKLESS PEOPLE IN IMPORTANT POSITIONS
Not everyone in Surely was blind to how the Hock family controlled the BD or their efforts to demonize political enemies. Many folks in town stayed loyal to the Gazette and worked hard to make sure that there were always a few people on the town council who weren’t “owned” by the Hock family.
David Hock hand-picked Virgil Pick and Peter Prince to run for the town council in the 2010 election. The two angry loudmouths just seemed like natural politicians. It didn’t take much to convince them of “the truth” and who they needed to define the “truth” for them.
Virgil’s daily tirades to the breakfast crowd at the Sunshine Diner were legendary. Peter Prince’s throne for proclaiming what was wrong in the world was a bar stool at the town’s only watering hole, The Bigelow Tavern. If there was any reason the hard-working folks of Surly hesitated to catch a cold brew after work, it was the apprehension of becoming a captive audience to a Peter Prince diatribe.
The BD had of course endorsed Pick, Prince and Bachman for town council. And while he didn’t out rightly promise Sarah Bachmann that he would stop beer sales at the Hock family supermarket as she wanted, David convincingly suggested to Sarah over tea that the idea was certainly worthy of further discussion.
Hock did promise Sarah that the BD would support her efforts to keep the State’s new sex-ed curriculum out of the high school. As far as Sarah was concerned, “Opening a teenager’s eyes to something their hormones are demanding is like inviting the devil to teach in our classrooms.”
When Surly’s favorite church-lady handily won re-election to the town council, she told her supporters over home-made pastries in the church atrium that she now had a mandate to keep the town: a quiet, Christian community that will never put out the welcome mat for people who don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ.
THE SCARY TRUTH
Property taxes in Surly had not been raised in more than 20 years. No town council in recent memory had the nerve to buck the Hock family’s efforts to keep the municipality minimally functional. As a result:
- The Sheriff and his two deputies were probably among the lowest paid in the state
- The three school buildings in Surly were in decrepit condition with ever aging equipment
- The salaries and benefits provided to school administrators and teachers were not only the lowest in the state, they ranked among the lowest in all 50 States.
But by 2011, years of Hock family greed were coming home to roost. All the municipal employees were demanding a living wage or threatening to walk. And they weren’t talking about walking out on strike, they talking about walking out of Surly, permanently.
More than 2 dozen families had left town in just the last couple of years because of the town’s ailing infrastructure and poor schools. Anyone with eyes and wheels could see for themselves the nice parks, playgrounds and other community facilities neighboring towns had to offer.
CAN YOU TEACH OLD DOGS NEW TRICKS?
Hock knew that he had to let the Surely town council finally do some serious investing in infrastructure or the town would self-destruct. The motion that had been introduced at the last town council meeting was to take out a significant capital-improvement loan and increase property taxes for the first time in two decades by a whopping 1%.
The 3 independent council members who had introduced the bill expressed optimism that the overdue capital improvements would not only retain current residents, but attract new ones. A couple of well-known builders in the state had already expressed interest in putting up some new homes near the proposed new high school and community pool.
The future of Surely was on the line. But after decades of non-stop rhetoric about the evils of taxes and government, many older Surly residents were skeptical about the audacious proposal. After all, they were retired and on a fixed incomes. More importantly, they had no complaints about their quality of life and why should they worry about what would be going on in town after they were 6 feet in the ground?
Hock knew that young families no longer seriously thought of the town as good place to raise kids. And if Surly’s already scant tax base continued to dwindle, the town would implode.
The Hock family had too much invested in Surly to just pick up and move elsewhere. Their own greed was killing the town that had served as the family’s personal ATM for generations.
How could he now convince folks who had followed his lead for so long that sometimes people do need a well-financed government to secure the future?
David Hock was in trouble and he had no one to blame but himself.