Just Another Narrative About Privilege

Back in 2008 US Senator Kay Hagan, now 61, sold herself to North Carolina voters as one of them: wife, mother, and business owner who knew all about the problems of trying to make big government more responsive to citizens and small businesses.  The narrative on Elizabeth Dole, on the other hand, was that Dole was an elitist Republican rubber stamp who was out of touch with North Carolina.   

Hagan is the mother of three.  Otherwise missing from the preferred media narrative are a few facts about Hagan's background that suggest she is more scion of crony capitalists than citizen legislator.  Kay Hagan's maiden name is Ruthven and Kay was largely raised in Lakeland, Florida.  The Ruthvens are not ordinary citizens of Lakeland.  Her father may have started out as a tire salesman but he ended up as one of the large developers of commercial real estate in Florida.. 

It is also questionable whether Hagan has ever had to deal much with obstreperous or officious bureaucrats.  Her mother's maiden name was Chiles.  Hagan's uncle was the extremely partisan Democrat Lawton Chiles, another resident of Lakeland, Florida.  Lawton Chiles was a very successful real estate developer himself as well as a career politician. In Florida politics these occupations often go hand in hand. Chiles served 12 years in the Florida legislature, 18 years in the US Senate, and died during his second term as Florida governor in 1998.  In other words, Hagan's family have been political insiders ever since she started kindergarten.  

As a child Hagan campaigned for her uncle Lawton, and he came up to North Carolina to lend a hand in her first race for public office shortly before his death. Despite having a leg up over her colleagues through her family political connections, which are on par with those of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Hagan's career in both the North Carolina and US Senate has largely been that of the reliable rubber stamp.  She is the type of politician who tends not to generate personal strong feelings in either direction.  As with Elizabeth Dole among Republicans, there are widespread feelings that Hagen has done little more than take up space on Capitol Hill.   

In 2014, the media's preferred campaign narrative is shaping up to be how political insider and privileged white male Republican Thom Tillis wants to sell out North Carolina as part of the Republican #WaronWomen.  This narrative is false to the core. 

Unlike the connected Kay Hagan, Thom Tillis, age 53, was born into a working class family.  While he has been labeled a political insider in this election cycle, his background is anything but that of someone with longstanding  family connections.  Tillis he wasn't able to go straight from high school to college.  He had to work.  It was the late 1970s and good jobs were very hard for young people to come by.  For years Tillis juggled work with taking classes at community colleges and extension programs.  As a result, Tillis didn't finish his BA degree until he was 36.  In the next decade he first became a partner in the consulting group at PriceWaterhouseCooper. 

Then, in 2006, Tillis first ran for public office and won.  His new colleagues in the NC House of Representatives thought so highly of his talent that he became a whip during the 2008 legislative session. Tillis helped recruit and organize other candidates so that after the 2010 election there was a Republican majority in the NC House of Representatives, the first in over a century.  Tillis was elected speaker at the start of this third term, a very fast rise to top political leadership. 

Only in Obama's America could a Horatio Alger rise such as that of Thom Tillis be written off as no more than white male privilege, even as the well connected nonentity Hagan is celebrated in the media as a woman who triumphed over the patriarchy.  

There is talk the 2014 North Carolina race might be the most expensive US Senate campaign in history.  Both parties are already sending in outsiders as consultants and foot soldiers.  If Hagan follows in her uncle's footsteps it may also be one of the dirtiest, with the interest of the voters running decidedly behind that of the Democratic Party.  How partisan was Lawton Chiles?  In August 1992 after Hurricane Andrew devastated a large swath of south Florida, then Governor Chiles delayed several days before asking that federal troops be deployed to help restore order.  This delay was largely blamed on President George H.W. Bush by the media and it assisted Democrat challenger Bill Clinton in painting the elder Bush as uncaring and incompetent. 

How dirty did Chiles campaign?  Coming into the November 1994 election, Republican challenger Jeb Bush was seen as having a slight edge over incumbent Chiles.  Then a veritable hurricane of "push polling" struck Florida.  Push polling consists of phone calls that masquerade as a political poll but which are intended to plant false information about a candidate.  In these calls Jeb Bush was accused of not paying taxes and of supporting the abolition of Social Security and Medicare.  The esteemed political scientist Larry J. Sabato noted in 1996:

When these calls came to light, Chiles's aides denied involvement -- a practice that usually works, because documentary evidence is hard to find and reporters often lose interest. But it has since emerged that the calls were made on orders from top campaign officials and carried out by a Washington telemarketing company. None of the charges against Bush or his running mate could be substantiated by the Chiles campaign. Now the incidents are being investigated at length by the Florida legislature, and Chiles has been forced to defend his integrity under oath before the body -- a precedent in Florida history -- with the embarrassing explanation that he was out of the loop.

It is to be hoped that after November 2014 the dirt will settle and niece Kay will be out of the political loop for good.