“And I don’t want what Jay’s got on his table
Or the box Carol Merrill points to on the floor
No I’ll hold out just as long as I am able
Or until I can unlock that lucky door
Well, she’s no big deal to most folk
But she’s everything to me
‘Cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three.”
—”Door Number Three” by Jimmy Buffett
It was always the hold-your-breath moment on the old Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall: After turning away a big pile of cash and a nice-enough dining room set, a housewife, dressed as a belly dancer or Raggedy Ann or wearing a barrel, anxiously waited to see if her new car was behind curtain number three. Turns out, it was a goat … chewing on a bail of hay. And Raggedy Ann was left hoping and praying that she was going home with the hay.
When it comes to political movements in the 21st Century, there’s rarely much talk about what happens when you commit to the mystery prize. On the other hand, there’s lots of talk about what would happen without it. Visit a Tea Party rally and you’ll find a lot of people fighting against healthcare reform or against this or that. But the details are pretty vague on what a Tea Party nation would look like — on what exactly is behind that curtain.
Among the Tea Partiers, there’s a lot of talk about the Constitution and liberty and the good ol’ days, but not a lot on the future. That’s kind of left to each member to dream up on their own. And those dreams could be about almost anything. A holiday celebrating Long Island Iced Tea? Founding father porn?
But let’s not pick on the Tea Party. You could go to extremes with just about any movement.
Like the green movement. Common-sense answers to curb smog are good, but what if we eliminated every toxin? We’d breath easier and live longer — but port traffic would be by canoe and we’d fill out our TPS reports by candlelight.
And what about the battle over unions? Unions would have driven Boeing to Mexico. But a world without unions would mean Boss Hog Airlines — you do what the boss says because you don’t have a choice. There’s a lot of talk about South Carolina’s appeal as a right-to-work state, but if there were no unions anywhere else, we wouldn’t have had anything to offer.
The point is that you just don’t know what’s behind that door. You just know there’s no room in the garage for a goat.
The anatomy of a movement
What if you came to the studio convinced you weren’t leaving with anything less than that new car.
Meet the fair tax movement. Its goal is to systemically restructure the way that we pay for our state and federal government. Payroll taxes and any other taxes on income would be replaced with a larger, broader sales tax on everything you buy. There’s no real avenue for compromise. You can’t halfway eliminate income taxes.
So organizers have had to be patient and consistent — educating politicians and growing their grassroots support.
The movement started like most movements start: as general opposition to something sinister — in this case, it’s called the IRS. Organizers knew they didn’t like the existing tax structure, but they didn’t know what they wanted to replace it with. So Charleston, along with only two other regions in the nation, was polled to see what kind of solution would find the most support from taxpayers. John Steinberger, a statewide leader for the fair tax folks, says the local movement really took shape in 2004 with the high-profile endorsement of then-candidate Jim DeMint.
From there, it’s been a constant push — at parades, fairs, and civic meetings across the state. You’d be hard-pressed to find a candidate forum in the region that doesn’t have at least two or three fair tax supporters in sweatshirts with the logo blazing across their chests
Just two years ago, you could almost write off a political candidate who openly supported the fair tax plan. But the conservative ascendency of 2010 has energized the movement. Several Congressional candidates and, more importantly, Statehouse candidates, are on board. And a lot of time has been spent educating candidates so that they can not only be supporters of the change, they can be advocates.
Steinberger says the fair tax is also an easier sell in a recession where payroll checks keep getting smaller and every nickel and dime is more important than ever.
Fair tax leaders know they can’t rely on taxpayers just accepting their logic. They’ve got to offer some proof that there’s four wheels and a motor behind that curtain.
The movement has tried to address the most evident concerns about inequality with a “prebate” check for those at or below the poverty line.
Their hopeful the fair tax can take hold in key states, prove some success, and hit the national stage. Steingberger points to welfare reform, which started in Wisconsin, then Michigan, and later moved on to Washington.
Even if a candidate isn’t successful, they’re carrying the message to a broad swath of voters. Maybe more importantly, it becomes clear to political opponents that this voting block is active, informed, and persistent.
When you get what you want
What happens when you pick door number three and you actually get what you want? There really is a car back there! But it’s a stick. So now you’ve got to learn how to drive the damn thing.
A disgruntled band of James Island residents saw the writing on the wall as the City of Charleston gobbled up more and more property in annexations. The suburb had long left its rural roots, but this suburbia was far from the metropolitan downtown district that dominated city priorities.
So the residents banded together to offer an alternative to the city: a Town of James Island. Two tries at incorporation were beat back by legal challenges from the city, but a third try in 2006 seemed airtight (a third challenge is still awaiting a Supreme Court decision).
But there were no spoils in this victory — just new found responsibilities.
“It started with our first meeting,” says Town Councilman Joe Qualey. “Where’s our town hall? Where do we hold meetings? We had to go into work mode.” Then there were the immediate needs of staff, services, and infrastructure.
Qualey is happy with the results: a local, responsive government that doesn’t take orders from across the Ashley River.
“Fundamentally, it’s the right thing for the townspeople,” he says.
But most of the media attention has been directed at the growing pains. Infighting and disagreement is common on most any council, but Mayor Mary Clark, who pioneered the incorporation along with Qualey and others, all but suggested last year that there’s mutiny afoot on her ship.
Clark wants to buy McLeod Planation. It’s a worthy preservation effort, but Qualey wants to know how to pay for it. A recent battle over fixing a ditch led to Clark threatening her resignation if the council went against her wishes.
But Qualey still says this is for the best.
“We on James Island are passionate people,” he says. “You’re going to get some disagreements that reach a different decibel, but this happens with every council. At the end of the day, we shake hands and walk away.”
And the consequences of success can go beyond responsibility.
Developers set their sights a few years ago on a large wooded area near the Angel Oak, a massive sprawling Johns Island tree that’s centuries old and currently preserved by the city on a small stretch of land.
Quick to address concerns about protecting the tree, the developers agreed to wide buffers between it and buildings to insure continued protection. They also offered to use some of their land for an expanded parking lot.
Currently, Angel Oak visitors drive over the tree’s stretching root system to park their cars. The new lot would be located past the reach of exposed roots.
Last month, University of Georgia tree biologist Kim Coder took environmentalists over the coals for sidelining the project and endangering the tree’s best chance at a new parking lot.
“Unfortunately, the Angel Oak is threatened by its admirers and defenders,” she wrote in a Post and Courier opinion piece. “There is a serious and long-term threat, including compound stress elevations and physical damage to the tree and the site from human and vehicular traffic.”
Not about getting what you want
There’s a point about Let’s Make a Deal that’s often overlooked. Most times, people didn’t go for door number three. You could go episodes before someone took home a car. They’d take the cash. They’d be happy with their dining room set. It’s better than risking everything for the car. After all, the show was called Let’s Make a Deal, not Let’s Win a Car.
The Coastal Conservation League has been a staunch environmental watchdog in the Lowcountry for years. They’re known for standing against port growth and highway expansion, as well as supporting the preservation of the rural character of the area’s islands.
The group’s reputation has led some developers to come to them first and vet out concerns before making an official pitch to planning officials.
“We’re a stakeholder, as they would see it,” says Executive Director Dana Beach.
The group spends more time at the negotiating table than it does on the picket line. They’re not looking to be a roadblock to development, but to shepherd it in the right direction — by offering sustainable solutions that reduce the number of cars on the road or the impact on the surrounding environment.
“We do a lot more than just say, ‘No,'” he says of various developments across the region. “We say, ‘No, but …'”
That includes the Angel Oak project, where the league has offered to endorse an initial phase, if the developer allows the group to find $2 million to buy 16 acres planned for a second phase.
If the developer agrees, that land would be added to the park, providing 20 acres of preservation around the Angel Oak. Last fall, the developer asked for the details of the league’s $2 million appraisal of the land, but hasn’t responded further to the offer, says Beach.
The league has also been lobbying the Department of Transportation on a planned extension of Interstate 526 to the James Island Connector. While they haven’t found success in that avenue yet, the group has been able to call attention within the Transportation Department to the need for broader transportation solutions that actually reduce traffic — like a grid of streets or bike lanes.
It won’t eliminate every new car on the road, but a few contestants might just go home with a bike as a consultation prize. It’ll still get you to work, and, in the end, it’s not about getting what you want. It’s about getting what you need.