[UPDATED with response from the McCollum campaign.] Bill McCollum is part of a small, elite circle of politicians. Back in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president and unicorns with cotton candy hooves scampered through the twilight dreams of American conservatives, he was one of just 90 members of the House of Representatives to vote against the establishment of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (338 House members voted yes.) When that same bill, HR 3706, made it to the Senate in August of that year, it’s chief opponent was Jesse Helms. Helms, of North Carolina, tried to get the FBI to unseal its wiretaps of King because Helms wanted to prove the civil rights leader was a Communist. (The bill had been introduced repeatedly since 1968 by Rep. John Conyers, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had obtained 6 million petition signatures supporting the idea of a holiday — petitions presented to Congress by Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder. In the Senate, Helms’ main opponent was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, while the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously grabbed a dossier on King that Helms wanted read into the record, threw it on the ground and stomped on it.)
Fast forward to January 15, 2008, during the height of the presidential primary season. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee for president, was in Memphis, TN apologizing at the Lorraine Motel historic site, for having been on Helms’ side in the debate, rather than Kennedy’s. From a Boston Globe article dated April 4, 2008:
“I was wrong. I was wrong,” he said in front of the Lorraine Motel after an impromptu tour of where King was assassinated 40 years ago. “We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans.”
Some in the crowd heckled him, but others shouted, “We forgive you. We forgive you.”
Not everybody forgave (or forgot) and McCain (who not only voted against the holiday, but fought it for nearly a decade, including supporting his state’s governor’s attempts to kill it,) never really had a shot at getting more than a handful of black people to vote for him in 2008 (not even his black relatives in Mississippi.) But the controversy became enough of a story that McCain was forced to address it, on MLK day, in Memphis. Similarly, Ron Paul, also running for the Republican nomination in 2008, was forced to answer questions about a series of monthly newsletters published under his name during the 1980s that smeared King as a “lying socialist satyr” who “seduced underage girls and boys” and which “mocked the very idea of dedicating a holiday to the civil rights leader” [Reason Magazine.] Paul, too, had little chance of claiming many African-American votes, but his position on the King holiday, King himself and race more generally, were considered relevant to the media, especially after his followers used the King holiday to stage a “freedom march” and drop one of their patented “money bombs,” invoking the slain civil right’s leader’s name to raise money for Paul’s candidacy, apparently blissfully unaware of the irony.
The point here is that for the media on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a politician’s history on the matter has historically been considered relevant, if he was in office and thus able to vote on it, even if that politician has little chance with black voters, particularly when that candidate is running for a significant or statewide office (and I’m thinking governor of Florida counts.) The “MLK question” is in many ways like the Vietnam question, in that a politician’s contemporaneous actions or positions on such issues as war or race, versus what they say now, offers a window into their character (which is why Democrats will never stop reminding Vietnam war proponents like Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman and Rush Limbaugh that they avoided the draft, and why Republicans just can’t get over John Kerry’s opposition to the war, after he actually fought in it.) So will the media ask Bill McCollum the same questions it asked McCain or Paul about the King holiday (or that were asked of Virginia’s newly elected governor, Bob McDonnell, about his graduate school thesis, for that matter?) Did McCollum oppose the holiday because he, too thought King was a communist? Was there some other reason? Would he change that vote if he had to do over again, or does he stand by it? Inquiring minds should want to know.
After all, McCollum didn’t just cast an inconspicuous vote with the minority back in 1983. He also was part of an even smaller minority of just 42 House members who voted in May of 1989 against funding and extending the life of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, whose job was to promote the observance of the holiday (despite Ronald Reagan having signed the King holiday into law in 1983, the commission had never been funded.) To demonstrate what a small minority McCollum was in, he was among fewer than 50 members of Congress in both chambers to oppose the measure, which passed the Senate by a vote of 90 to 7, and one of only three members of the Florida delegation (the other two: Mike Bilirakis and Andy Ireland.) And the King holiday, just to review, came before two Republican presidents — conservative standard bearer Ronald Reagan (an initial opponent of the bill), and George H.W. Bush, both of whom signed it without incident. McCollum stood against both men, not to mention Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp, who voted for the 1983 bill, and on the side of segregationist Jesse Helms. That’s one hell of a minority.
As the 2010 political season kicks into gear, African-Americans and progressive voters of all hues should start paying closer attention to McCollum, who has been around so long he has almost become part of the state’s political furniture. But being dull doesn’t make him benign. And if Black voters went ballistic over Jeb Bush’s One Florida plan or his statement during his losing 1994 campaign that he would do “probably nothing” for Black Floridians, or his zeal for standardized testing, McCollum’s King rejectionism ought to be at least equally alarming. After all, McCollum was the only Florida cabinet member to oppose ending the post Civil War remnant of Florida’s infamous “Black Codes” that made the state one of just a handful in the country to deny a convicted felon their voting rights forever (when the Black Codes got started, a felony could include “using insulting gestures” or “preaching the gospel without a license.”) In Florida, as many blacks will never forget, the felon disenfranchisement scheme was the basis of Republican “caging” operations that swept up some 90,000 people with names similar to those of felons in the run-up to the 2000 elections — and those swept up, and denied the right to vote, were overwhelming black. And lest Hispanic voters tune him out, too, McCollum is also the guy who in 1996 sponsored a Republican Party platform item calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that all children born in the U.S. will be citizens. Said McCollum back then: women are ”coming across the border just to have babies.”
I’m not sure if the MLK issue came up when McCollum was running for his current job back in 2006, but I wish it had. Black voters, and indeed all voters in this state deserved to know what kind of man they were electing. I’ve looked, and can find no statement in which McCollum has repudiated his 1983 and 1989 votes as McCain did, or tried to wriggle out of it by claiming ignorance of all matters King (except for really, really respecting him,) as Ron Paul did. So it’s left to the imagination whether he has changed his mind (I can’t wait to see what he’s doing tomorrow, for MLK day…) And now that McCollum wants to be governor of Florida, which has one of the largest minority populations in the U.S., including nearly 16 percent African-Americans and 21 percent Hispanics, shouldn’t someone ask him? (I plan to contact his office tomorrow to try and do so, but it will be interesting to see if anybody else does.
UPDATE 1/18, 3:21 p.m.: I got this response not too longago from Kristy Campbell, McCollum’s campaign communications director:
General McCollum today joined more than 600 Floridians at the 19th annual Arthur “Pappy” Kennedy Prayer Breakfast in Orlando to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
General McCollum’s opposition to adding another federal holiday to the calendar more than 25 years ago was rooted in purely fiscal concerns. As he has said before, he believes the vote was a mistake. General McCollum has deep respect for the tremendous contributions Dr. King made to our country and the lasting impacts his vision and passionate leadership have had on the American people.
And as The Buzz in Tampa Bay points out, McCollum sent out the obligatory MLK Day statement – at around 3 p.m, while similarly situated state pols had theirs out either before today, or early this morning. I spoke to the campaign at just before 2 p.m. this afternoon, and the Florida Democratic Party blasted McCollum at around 1:30, even citing this post. So not to take credit for the belated King love on McCollum’s part, but…