Libertarian Heroes of 2003

We spent a good deal of 2003 haranguing politicians in this space, most of the time for putting self-interest and re-election above preserving and defending freedom.

We gave Attorney General John Ashcroft heat, for example, for his fair-weather federalism. We took President Bush to task for growing government at rates unseen since the Roosevelt administration. We excoriated William Bennett and his defenders for the “no guardrails” double standard they apply to how regular people ought to live their lives. We bashed Ralph Nader for scamming college students. And we praised Sen. Ernest Hollings, not for anything he did as a senator, but for retiring, thus ending a decades-long political career spent tirelessly chipping away at progress, freedom and prosperity.

In a fit of misguided optimism, then, I’ve decided to start the New Year on a more upbeat note. I’ve managed to find a few politicians who did a thing or two right in 2003. The elected officials below aren’t perfect; on the whole, some of them probably deserve more scrutiny than praise. But each in some way took a stand (or several) to limit the size of government, defend our civil liberties or otherwise uphold the freedom of Americans at the expense of the state. So New Year’s kudos to:

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

Businessman Nagin ran for mayor as his first foray into politics. It shows -- and I mean that in a good way. Immediately upon taking office, Nagin took a scouring pad to Crescent City corruption. He raided the Taxicab Bureau, arresting some 80 employees -- including his own cousin -- and had the bureau’s director marched out of City Hall in handcuffs. When the city director in charge of the bureau called a press conference to criticize the raid, Nagin fired her on camera, and later had her arrested, too. Since then, several other city officials have been fired, indicted, and convicted for fraud, bribe-taking and corruption.

Nagin also crossed party lines and endorsed Republican whiz kid Bobby Jindahl for governor last year, a move that cost him political support from key constituencies.

Florida Rep. Tom Feeney

Imagine you’re a freshman Republican congressman who ran on principles of limited government. Imagine there’s a huge vote about to take place in Congress, one with enormous political implications for your party and its leader, the president of the United States. Imagine all of this hinges on a bill your own party drafted, but that happens to stand in direct opposition to everything you believe in. Now imagine that the president himself calls you -- a lowly first-term congressman -- and asks you why you’re not a team player, why you won’t support the prescription drug benefit, the biggest federal entitlement in 40 years. What do you do?

If you’re Florida Rep. Tom Feeney, you say to the president, “I came to Washington to cut entitlements, not to grow them.”

Unfortunately, Feeney’s stand means he’ll get no help from the GOP in his re-election campaign. Too bad. He’s the exact kind of guy the Republican Party needs right now. By the way, after Feeney explained to Bush why he couldn’t support the Medicare bill, the president replied, “Me too, pal,” and hung up on the congressman.

Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford

Ford makes this list more for his rhetoric and his potential than his actual voting record. Ambitious and eloquent, he’s a fast-rising star in the Democratic Party. Ford has shown an admirable reluctance to wade into the partisan muck and mire. He’s a free thinker. His talking points aren’t dictated to him by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He has flirted with support for school choice. He’s generally supportive of tax cuts. And there are rumors around Washington that he may eventually support one of several plans to give Americans ownership of their Social Security taxes. Ford is likely bound for the U.S. Senate, if not higher office. If his voting record ever aligns with his rhetoric, he could emerge as an important voice of reason in a party too consumed with class warfare and entitlement culture.

Washington, D.C., City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz

The anti-smoking fascists had already put together an impressive list of victories -- public smoking bans in California, New York, Florida and Delaware -- when they set their sites on Washington this year. Given that record, a similar ban in the nation’s capital seemed inevitable. Enter Carol Schwartz.

At a 10-hour hearing on the proposed ban, Schwartz repeatedly asked ban proponents to explain why she should trespass on the property rights of local bar and restaurant owners -- her constituents -- at the behest of anti-smoking activists funded by a public health foundation way off in New Jersey. Schwartz introduced alternate legislation offering a tax break to city businesses that go smoke-free, and put the smoking ban idea on life support.

Schwartz’s proposal currently has more council supporters than the ban proposal, but is one vote short of a majority. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams also has promised to veto a public smoking ban (Williams also gets credit for supporting school choice in D.C.).

Schwartz almost single-handedly turned back the well-funded, momentum-gaining, anti-smoking blitzkrieg that’s conquering towns, cities and counties with alarming efficiency.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul

Rep. Paul not only makes this list, he is this list. He’s the most consistent defender of freedom elected to federal office in about 200 years. For Rep. Paul, such devotion to principle is easy.  When a bill comes up for a vote, he merely asks himself whether or not the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to do what the bill asks. If the answer is “no” -- and it almost always is -- he votes no. He is reliably the “1” when the House passes a bill 434-1. The Washington Post once dubbed him “Congressman ‘No.’”

Sad -- isn’t it? -- that the simple act of upholding the Constitution occurs so rarely in Washington that when it does, it merits a nickname for the politician who does it?

A few others with promise? New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu; Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake; Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. Even New Mexico Gov. and former Clinton official Bill Richardson did some things right.

Here’s hoping this list is too long to fit into a single column come 2005.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publisher of the weblog:  He's also the author of the new Cato Institute paper, "Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking."

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