Watching a dog chase its tail is funny. Watching a watchdog chase its tail — and catch it, and gnaw on it until it draws blood — isn’t.
But that is what Common Cause did in April, ousting two members from the Georgia chapter’s board. Two more board members resigned last week in protest.
Nationally, Common Cause has long been nonpartisan in name but left-leaning in practice. The state chapter, however, for years had more independence. Common Cause Georgia’s board, meticulously balanced among Republicans, Democrats and independents, worked with the group’s mission of “holding power accountable” but didn’t endorse everything the national organization did.
“We built a different identity from the national organization,” says Bob Irvin, an Atlanta Republican who was kicked off the state chapter’s board. “And they let us do it. And I think they let us do it because they realized that was the way it had to be in Georgia.”
Last fall, under a new national president, Miles Rapoport, that independent streak came to be viewed as untenable. What’s more, Common Cause added “economic, social and environmental justice” to its mission. Those are loaded words politically.
“It is a very left-leaning agenda that national is promoting,” says Terry Taylor, a Smyrna Democrat who was also purged from the state board. “If I wanted to find a place to advocate for those things, there are plenty of places to go. I wanted desperately to have a place that was nonpartisan that could talk about good government and holding power accountable and transparency. That’s what I wanted Common Cause to do.”
In the past, the state board abstained from the national organization’s more ideological efforts. “It helped our organization to narrow our focus and speak with one voice to a larger constituency,” says John Sours, a Republican who served on the state board from 2003 to 2010.
But Irvin and Taylor say Rapoport made it clear that was no longer an option, for either the board as a whole or its individual members. They were removed from the board for refusing to accept the changes. Lucius Morton, a Republican from Columbus and the current state board chairman, resigned in protest, as did Phyllis Fraley of Atlanta, an independent.
Jenny Rose Flanagan, Common Cause’s vice president for state operations, describes the changes as an “issue of governance.”
“There are issues nationally that all of our state boards work on together,” she says. “We’re going to continue working in Georgia to make democracy as accountable and accessible to the people as we can.”
Count me as deeply skeptical this new Common Cause will remain effective here.
It was the state chapter’s political neutrality that allowed it to partner with groups from across the ideological spectrum, including the tea party, to push for ethics reform. Seeing diverse groups work together toward a genuinely common cause was a refreshing break from our polarized politics, and a credit to the broader organization. (Full disclosure: I accepted a “Democracy Award” from the Georgia chapter in 2012 for my columns about limiting lobbyist gifts to legislators.)
Of course, there were Republicans even then who dismissed Common Cause Georgia as just a bunch of liberals. Back then, they were wrong. From now on, unfortunately, it looks like they’ll be right.