Wednesday, March 02, 2005

COLUMN -- These crusaders for liberties battle the status quo

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:27 AM |  

Wednesday Mar. 02, 2005

This is more fittingly one of those year-end reviews or forward-looking year-ahead columns — the tactic of a busy journalist trying to squeeze out a column and squeeze in a holiday break.

Nonetheless, quick notes scribbled on discarded envelopes or laboriously scrawled on slightly soggy bar napkins have languished far too long in the "to do" folder.

Here's kudos that is much overdue.

Writing my weekly column, I have been impressed and humbled by individuals who find themselves challenging government — not because they are "activists" who want something from government, but because government has done something to them.

People like Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub & Herb's tavern, who has spent the past 18 months challenging local and statewide smoking bans that are, she believes, government dictating how she legally operates her private business.

Insulted by a St. Paul city councilman ("We'll just ignore your bizarre and addled ideas"), demonized as a front for "Big Tobacco," portrayed as a person putting personal profit ahead of public health, Sue continues to battle knowing that ultimately the fate of her business lies not with her, but in the hands of local and state legislators.

People like Al Winters, a parent and a taxpayer who lives near Buffalo. He recently sent me a 25-page report he prepared. It follows the four-year planning process of the Northwest Suburban Integration School District that culminated in a magnet school plan. The plan, Al believes, is "mostly indifferent to the choices [of] parents and society in general." He hopes his report will raise awareness and make a difference.

People like Nancy Hokkanen, one of thousands of parents dealing with the tragedy of an autistic child — a preventable tragedy had government investigated, not stonewalled, the potential connection between the mercury in childhood vaccines and certain types of autism.

After Nancy's son was diagnosed as mercury-toxic and treated appropriately, he improved dramatically. Her goal now is helping parents of autistic children explore the possibility of treatment. Despite critics who label her and parents like her "fanatics," she refuses to be silenced. She is actively supporting proposed legislation (Senate File 639) that would prohibit vaccines that contain mercury from being administered in Minnesota.

It is not just the courage of these "ordinary" people that impresses me. They have a depth of knowledge based on research better measured in months and years than hours. Their arguments are rational, not purely emotional. Their grasp of big-picture implications contrasts with the narrow political positions of those who sit in the seats of power.

I've sat amazed as both the House and Senate "health" committees moved or tabled bills without ever defining what constituted a "public health" issue and why the legislation before them met any such criteria. They ignored data in favor of anecdotes, dealt with complex science in minutes, and then voted "yea" or "nay" on political expediency.

That brings me to an observation. I am equally amazed by the ad hominem attacks of supposedly professional people in government and the media when unpopular causes are raised and defended.

Stand up for property rights — one is putting profit ahead of the public good. Challenge the educational status quo — one is out to destroy public schools. Question vaccine safety — one is an anti-vaccination radical. Question the need for more state taxes — one gets compared to the violent Posse Comitatus.

"As radical as the Posse Comitatus is about protesting taxes, we have a radical anti-tax organization within our own state that advocates some of the same Posse principles," wrote the president of the Minnesota State Patrol Troopers Association. Alluding to the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, he said, "Although the organization isn't obviously violent, its final result is just as dangerous."

One of those soggy bar napkins notes a conversation with a local blogger, a "hobby hack" referred to by a Twin Cities newspaper columnist.

"You know," he said, commenting on personal attacks against me for supporting school choice, "despite what anyone in the mainstream media writes, I still have this natural respect for them. These are professional people. They just can't be that small-minded."

They all aren't; yet one must ask why do the Sue Jefferses, the Al Winterses, the Nancy Hokkanens and others who challenge the status quo so often fight their battles alone and unheralded?


Mea culpa: In last week's column, I misspelled state Sen. Steve Kelley's last name. Also, I dropped a reference to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty,, as a source. Apologies.