Even the most cynical of political observers holds some optimistic hope that somewhere along the way an elected official will come forth to disabuse the notion that politics is always at the heart and core of every decision made by those in political office.
We learned last week that Casey Cagle will not be that enlightened public servant.
It was truly disappointing to hear Hall County’s native son captured on audio tape saying, repeatedly, that he had forced the passage of a piece of education legislation that he personally described as bad public policy in order to appease the political gods he hopes will allow him to become the state’s next governor.
In a seven minutes of private conversation taped by one of Cagle’s primary opponents, the sitting lieutenant governor said three different times his maneuvering to win passage of a bill to raise the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships was all about “politics” rather than shaping of good public policy.
In conversation with Clay Tippins, who finished fourth in last month’s Republican Primary for governor, Cagle explained he had to get the bill passed to prevent state Sen. Hunter Hill, another Republican contender for the job, from getting $3 million worth of campaign donations which Cagle thought would go to Hill if the bill failed.
Tippins, a former Navy seal, ambushed Cagle with a cellphone in his pocket set to record and a set of questions designed to lead the lieutenant governor down a path to self-incrimination. That Cagle was so willing to admit the nature of his actions to a former opponent was almost as surprising as what was said, showing a clear lack of awareness that his own words could come back to hurt him.
“Is it bad public policy? Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways,” Cagle said in describing the tax credit legislation that he steered around the chairman of the Senate Education Committee by assigning it to another committee for consideration.
That committee chairman was Sen. Lindsey Tippins, uncle of Clay Tippins. Cagle and Lindsey Tippins worked together last year to stop passage of the higher tax credits, but when it came up this year, Cagle abandoned the Education Committee chairman, whom he had appointed to the job.
When Clay Tippins asked the gubernatorial front-runner why he had turned on his uncle, Cagle made the reason for doing so clear: “It ain’t about public policy. It’s about (expletive) politics. There’s a group that was getting ready to put $3 million behind Hunter Hill.”
So much for loyalty and friendship and doing the right thing in the legislative upper chamber.
Since the tape’s release, Cagle has been in damage-control mode. He has backed off on his characterization of the bill in question, saying at Saturday’s dedication of his Gainesville campaign headquarters it wasn’t perfect but “strong public policy” and “the good certainly outweighed the bad.”
Yet he can’t unsay what was said on the audio tape. In listening to it, there’s no indication the lieutenant governor was ashamed nor embarrassed about what he had done. There’s almost a cocky “let me tell you how it works, son” tone to the dialogue, with the political pro teaching the upstart newcomer a lesson in the world of political intrigue, where politics is expected to trump public policy every time.
There is a bit of an unscrupulous air about Tippins’ actions in making a clandestine recording of an apparently friendly personal conversation then running with it to the media, but someone with Cagle’s long tenure in the world of state government should have known better than to give voice to the political motivations for his actions.
It wasn’t as though Cagle was caught with his guard down, but rather than he seemed to be bragging to Tippins about his ability to play and excel at the game of political power. He noted at one point he was “the only guy standing in the way” of getting the bill passed, until he decided to support it to prevent the possibility of Hill gaining financial support from a political action committee for his campaign.
Cagle, who faces Secretary of State Brian Kemp in a runoff for the Republican nomination for governor on July 24, has made improving public education a cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign. We can only assume now that means he will back sound educational policy — unless, of course, there is a good political reason not to do so.
“It is my biggest issue, and it’s the issue that I’m most passionate about, that I care the most, it’s where I focus my efforts,” Cagle said to Tippins in the recorded conversation.
On Saturday, he said, “My record speaks for itself and I stand behind what that record looks like. The record is a record that is pro-education. And it has always been and will continue to be my top priority.”
If education is his passion, but he will still sell it down the river for political favor, one can only imagine what he will do on all the issues he cares less about.
Cagle is one of our own, but it is hard not to wonder if he hasn’t spent so much time wheeling and dealing under the dome of the state Capitol that he’s sacrificed personal convictions to the altar of political expediency.
There are those who will feel that, as his hometown newspaper, we should not admonish the lieutenant governor for his words and deeds. To them we paraphrase in saying, “this is not about Casey, it’s just about politics.”
We expected better. We deserved better.
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