It grieves me to hear people complain about all the "crooked politicians" in our government. I have spent much of my adult life around the political arena and, popular though it may be, the perception that our public officials are generally a bad lot is incorrect.
In fact, politicians grade on a competency curve about like any other profession from doctors and preachers to butchers and bakers and newspaper columnists. About 20 percent are outstanding. Sixty percent are competent. And then there is the 20 percent who screw it up for everybody else.
I have had the good fortune to know and to work with some outstanding public servants during my career, people like former Gov. Carl Sanders; late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell; former Gov. Joe Frank Harris; former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; former Sen. Sam Nunn; former State Majority Leader Larry Walker; and the late Speaker of the House Tom Murphy (who didn't like me one whit, by the way), among others.
All were different individuals with a variety of political philosophies, but they had one thing in common: They gave more to public service than they took from it, and they did it with integrity.
So why the bad image of politicians? Simple. Blame it on the 20 percent. These are the ones who get into office and decide that the rules by which you and I live do not apply to them. They do things we could not and probably would not do because they assume their election to office comes with inalienable God-given rights, including the right to do whatever they choose. Those people are the ones who tar the political process.
Example: Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson was recently divorced. None but the most partisan of his political enemies take pleasure in such a development. A family has been torn asunder. People have been hurt. But alas, divorce happens every day. Even House speakers are not immune to that fact.
What makes Richardson's split noteworthy is that his former law partner, James Osborne, currently a superior court judge in Paulding County, took the highly irregular step of pulling the speaker's divorce request out of the normal rotation among the judges, granted it with no waiting period and then sealed all details.
Example: State Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague, D-Red Oak, has asked us to suspend our common sense and accept that her high-mileage treks across the state were not a scam to cash in on generous state reimbursement policies, but fact-finding trips. She claims she crisscrossed the state to learn about the drought (hint to Rep. Beasley-Teague: Read the newspaper) and to discuss the minimum wage.
On just one day, Beasley-Teague says she traveled from her home in Fairburn to Albany to Waycross to Savannah to Athens to Dillard and back to Fairburn, a distance of almost 900 miles, and spent her time talking to somebody else's constituents. I figure had she averaged 50 miles per hour, the trip would have taken 18 hours. With no stops.
For her supersonic excursion, she received 48.5 cents per mile in reimbursement, netting her $431. Overall, we taxpayers have given her $2,300 for such similar travel claims.
Example: State Rep. Jeanette Jamison, D-Toccoa, serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that writes tax legislation and taps our pocketbooks. It turns out that she hasn't paid her own taxes in eight years and owes the state $47,734. Her excuse? She said she was just too busy doing the "people's business" to remember to do her own.
People like Richardson, Beasley-Teague and Jamison try to get away with thumbing their noses at us and playing by a different set of rules because they think they are above the laws they expect the rest of us to follow. It will be interesting to see if this trio's constituents condone their high-handedness in the next election or boot them out of office.
A lot of good people are involved in public service and they don't deserve to be lumped in with the miscreants. All politicians aren't "crooked." Most are hard-working and deserve our thanks and respect. We just need to get rid of the 20 percent causing all the problems.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published March 1, 2008.