Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A lesson learned: Florida's Tea Party GOP nips hostile college voting bloc in the 'Bud'

R. Budd Dwyer
Florida recently passed a batch of election law "reforms" aimed at making it nearly impossible, if not outright illegal, for college students to vote in the Sunshine State.

While the GOP-dominated legislature apparently has no problem with third grade dropouts massing at the trailer park polling station next to the Dairy Queen on the bypass, Tallahassee Republicans rightly reckoned that those in pursuit of higher education tend to vote Democrat. Makes you ponder why.

They also understand that election year paybacks can be hell if you're going to raise tuition, cut financial aid and plunder the state's public school system in the cause of "fiscal responsibility" and placating the Tea Party.

A hundred thousand highly motivated post-secondary Democratic voters - pissed off post-secondary Democratic voters - can easily turn an election. Why take chances?

GOP lawmakers, as a rule, ain't all that bright. But they ain't stupid. The solution? Don't let a bunch of angry, young, energetic voters anywhere near a ballot. Gov. Rick Scott, R-WTF?, is expected to sign the measure.

While the university crowd seldom musters enough votes to properly rodger an election, it happens. All it takes is an issue. And the wrong politician in the wrong place at exactly the right time.

Like Stanford "Bud" Lehr.

Lehr was a Republican who represented the 95th District of Pennsylvania in the state House for nearly two decades.

His nickname was confusingly similar to one R. Budd Dwyer, the portly politician who was Pennsylvania's GOP treasurer until one snowy morning in 1987 when he abruptly ended his career by publicly shooting himself in the head - on live TV. Took just one squeeze of the trigger.

Lehr, on the other hand, essentially ended his political career by publicly shooting himself in the foot. Repeatedly.

In the years following his retirement, people would often ask Lehr if he was the guy who killed himself on television. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Lehr's constituents were proof nobody ever lost an election by underestimating the intelligence of the voters. Lehr had it figured.

Both were, by consensus, weasels. Dwyer was a corrupt weasel. Lehr was more the generic type.

Bud - he of the single "d" - was a popular butcher from the small hamlet of West York, a Republican-leaning working class community on the forgotten fringe of a district dominated by York City and its blue collar FDR Democrats.

In the days when attorney advertising was still taboo, bright young lawyers would commonly run for office as a way of making their names known without bucking the bar association and its status quo rulebook.

The drill was well established. You would register as a Democrat, litter the district with your face and name, then pray you didn't get elected. Once the votes were counted and you lost, you cashed in on your new-found fame by renting an office and hanging out a shingle.

By the time the butcher from West York decided to give politics a toss, the voters of both parties were beginning to weary of the revolving-door lawyer politicians. The meat cutter won. He romped. His win was so stunning, the incumbent learned the results while vacationing at a Miami Beach hotel where he had spent the final weeks of the campaign savoring umbrella drinks and tropical hookers.

And so began a career of political toadying that would be remarkable even by today's exacting standards.

Lehr learned that his talent for catering to his customers' every need translated easily into catering to nearly every political special interest need and cause that crossed his path. Lehr, like the French revolutionary Marat, was the master of leading from the rear.

As a member, and later chairman, of the House Liquor Control Committee, Lehr learned to toady to the booze interests and their big bucks while appeasing the less affluent but politically effective temperance lobby.

Pennsylvania's nonsensical system of retailing alcoholic beverages remains a monument to stupidity and the consequences of corrupt compromise. The Keystone State can thank Stanford "Bud" Lehr for creating this mess.

His downfall came slowly, prompted by his opposition to lowering the state's drinking age to 18. The majority of lawmakers in those Vietnam draft days rightfully reckoned that if you could fight and die for your country, you ought to be able to toast it with a few cold ones.

Lehr wasn't among them. His liquor control committee was where drinking age bills went off to die at the hands of a chairman who refused to bring this nonsense to a vote. His logic was simple. Take the drinking age trophy off the election year table, and the liquor industry's contributions to him and his GOP pals would drop to a trickle.

When the constitution was amended to grant 18-year-olds the right to go to the polls, the alcohol interests finally saw a chance to push Lehr out of the way and end the extortion. His re-election margins had been narrowing - even against the sacrificial losers thrown in his path by the Democrats. This newly-minted bloc of voters, the booze lobbyists reckoned, might just tip the scales.

Especially college students. College students who were increasingly tired of fleeing to surrounding states like Maryland, New Jersey and New York for a legal cold one - or 20. College students who were shelling out more money for fake IDs than they spent on textbooks and meals.

Lehr knew his district included a small private college with roughly 3,500 resident students. He also knew that even though they could now vote, they didn't bother. Most weren't even registered.

That was about to change. And it had everything, and nothing, to do with drinking.

Lehr happily waltzed into the punch that would ultimately flatten him like a blinded boxer in a mismatched undercard. His downfall began when the upscale residents of the upscale neighborhood surrounding the college decided the students in their midst had to go - and take their bad behavior and frat-style houses with them. Lehr, naturally, sided with the neighbors.

It wasn't a matter of principle, it was a matter of math. The neighbors voted. The students didn't. No brainer. Or so the butcher thought. He actually flaunted it. Even when it became clear that the residents were open to compromise, Lehr had hitched himself to their cause and was in no mood to talk truce. There were votes at stake.

With Bud flogging the horse, it became obvious to a handful of students that unless Lehr could be driven off, the days of frat partying were nearing an end. And since Lehr had openly boasted that students were essentially powerless because they didn't vote ...

Stanford "Bud" Lehr opened his morning paper a few weeks later to learn the registration drive organized by the college crowd had produced nearly 2,000 new voters. And the booze industry was lining up the dollars. The undergrads knew about the off-campus housing thing, of course. But the anti-Lehr effort had focused on his opposition to lowering the state's drinking age: Toss the old "Bud" out and bring the cold "Bud" in.

The deal was effectively sealed when the county's supervisor of elections responded to the geographic shift in voter registration and relocated the precinct polling place from the fire station down the street to the student-friendly college campus.

Stanford "Bud" Lehr immediately slinked into the shadows. The residents, now leaderless, quickly followed. The off-campus housing controversy went with them. He won re-election. It was close, however. Too close. And the media credited the student vote with making it that way. Their voice was clearly heard.

Gov. Scott and the state legislature are about to strip Florida's students of their voice - along with their financial aid and access to what was once among the best public university systems in the nation.

Bud's gone. But wherever he is, it's a fair bet he's looking down (or up) at the Sunshine State and giving Florida's politicians one of his sleazy weaselly smiles for a hand well-played and a lesson well-learned.

So, for all you do, Florida - and for what you're about to do - this Bud's for you.