Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hubbard comments on ethics reform, cronyism

(Published 9/22/07)

With Labor Day behind us, it’s time for politicians to, as Emeril Lagasse would say, "kick it up a notch." I recently spoke with Alabama Republican Party Chairman and State Rep. Mike Hubbard for his take on some recent state and national political developments.

  • On the potential for a special session for ethics reform: Gov. Bob Riley is "really debating the pros and the cons of it" and is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks, Hubbard said. A special session would force the Democrats to live up to the promises they made during last year’s campaigns, when they effectively co-opted the Republican agenda but then never got the issues out of committee, he said. "It just goes to show that they’re hypocrites and never had any intention of passing" the bills, he said of Democrats.
  • On recent news that Senate Democrats appear to be working out their differences: Hubbard noted that Alabama Education Association and Democratic heavyweight Paul Hubbert enlisted the help of a professional mediator to help bring some GOP-aligned Democrats back into the fold. But, Hubbard said, it remains to be seen whether the reconciliations will result in those Democrats voting with their party on cloture.
  • On so-called "double dipping" in the two-year college system: "I think it’s going to get even bigger," Hubbard said of the controversy. Superintendent Bradley Byrne indicated that corruption in the system "goes farther and deeper than we can imagine" and has been working with federal investigators, he said. "I think it’s big. I believe there will be indictments coming," Hubbard said. He added that any attempt to undo the new double-dipping policies legislatively would be bad policy - and bad politics. "I would hate to be a legislator and vote for a bill to undo what an elected board was established to do and also to keep a corrupt cronyism system in place," Hubbard said. Following the Legislature’s 62 percent pay raise earlier this year, "I think (it) would be a very, very dangerous vote," he said.
  • On presidential campaigns in Alabama: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have been working hard in Alabama, Hubbard said, and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who announced his candidacy just last week, is making inroads. (Sidebar: The Associated Press reported this week that although GOP delegate qualifying for the national convention just opened last month, more people have signed up to be Thompson delegates than all other candidates combined. Among those getting behind Thompson is State Rep. Mike Ball of Huntsville, who had chaired the McCain effort in Madison County.) Hubbard added that he is working to set up a party fundraiser with Thompson, similar to events attended by Romney and McCain, perhaps even in Auburn over the next few months.
  • On whether he’ll run for governor in 2010: Although "flattered" by the encouragement to run, Hubbard said his short-term focus is strengthening the state party, which he said he aims to transform from its traditional role as a "cheerleading outfit and social club" into a powerful engine driving the GOP into control in Montgomery. Key to those efforts, he said, is the major fundraising campaign he’s spearheading: a push to raise $4 million to $5 million, particularly for use in state legislative races. But Hubbard is keeping his options open, and any potential gubernatorial run, he said, would be considered through the filter of what’s best for his wife and young children. Either way, he expects to decide by late summer 2008.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bush must engage Americans on Iraq

(Originally published 9/15/07)

Following Gen. David Petraeus’ progress report to Congress on the troop surge in Iraq, President Bush delivered a prime-time address to Americans from the Oval Office Thursday and announced plans to bring 5,700 troops home by Christmas and decrease to 10 from 15 the number of brigades in Iraq by next summer.

The president said that "return on success" would guide his decisions regarding troop levels; the surge has improved security and diminished "ethno-sectarian violence" there, Petraeus told Congress this week.

Although Democrats denounced the plan as "unacceptable," most observers agree that Bush has bought himself more time on Iraq.

But one has to wonder whether Bush would need this full-court public relations press had he been more aggressive in communicating with the country about Iraq throughout the war.

One of the president’s personality traits is his veritable indifference to public opinion as it relates to the creation and execution of his policies, both foreign and domestic. Bush’s belief system ultimately guides his decisions. Supporters call this principle, even in the face of harsh and often personal opposition; opponents call it obtuse stubbornness, even in the face of contrary and irrefutable evidence.

From a broad perspective, it is reassuring that a president will stand firm in the face of opposition. But for this president, it can be argued it has harmed the war effort. Bush has remained reticent to critics of his Iraq policy, even while ordinary Americans have become frustrated with the war as they’ve watched brave soldiers continue to come home in flag-draped coffins.

There have been successes in Iraq. Regime change was accomplished; former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was captured and was tried, convicted and executed, in an Iraqi court and under Iraqi law. A democratic state was established in place of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. A constitution was written. Free elections were held. Parliament was seated. And Americans identify these things with the establishment of a new democracy.

But beyond this, Americans have no clear understanding of what is left to be done. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself: What is your idea of the mission in Iraq right now?

There are almost as many answers out there as there are people.

Some say troops remain to help stabilize Iraq’s government. Others say they are keeping terrorists out of America, a sort of fight-them-there-or-fight-them-here mentality. And still others believe that those reasons are simply a distraction from the real reason for our presence in Iraq: preparation for a permanent American establishment there that could be used as a base for any future military action in the region (Iran, anyone?).

Though not in as many words, Bush acknowledged Thursday that he has no plans to completely withdraw American troops from Iraq, even before the end of next year. A successful Iraq, he said, would require an "enduring relationship" with the United States that includes "security engagement" beyond the end of his presidency.

Petraeus will deliver another progress report to Congress in March, and the Iraq war now appears to depend on what happens there until then. But just as crucial will be how well the administration demonstrates for Americans our soldiers’ continued mission – and how well that mission is being achieved.

Unless Bush speaks plainly, strongly and frequently about what is left to be accomplished in Iraq, Americans will be left with the realization that there isn’t anything else to be accomplished in Iraq.

Thompson entry caps good week in presidential race

(Published 9/8/07)

It’s been a good week for political junkies watching the presidential race:

  • On the fall premiere of Ellen Degeneres’ wildly popular talk show, Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton told the nation that she sometimes comes home to find her former president husband "rearranging the bookshelf" or cleaning up the kitchen. "He’s pretty handy to have around," she said.
  • Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, whose support of Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama last fall made him a top-tier candidate overnight, may take a larger role in his campaign. If so, one pundit said, the "congregants of the Church of Oprah" will help Obama compete with Clinton for the women’s vote.
  • Democratic candidate and former U.S. Sen. John "Don’t-I-Remind-You-of-Bobby-Kennedy" Edwards said that the U.S. needs "a counterterrorism policy that actually counters terrorism." It reminded me of Hyundai’s current "Duh!" ad campaign.
  • At a campaign event, a high school student asked U.S. Sen. John McCain whether voters should take his age – 71 – into account. McCain noted his high energy level, then said to laughter, "Thanks for the question, you little jerk. You’re drafted."
  • Lastly, former U.S. Sen. (wait, do you see a pattern here?) Fred Thompson finally made his candidacy official.
Thompson’s announcement was seemingly just what the other GOP contenders needed to find their hibernating personalities. After the last mind-numbingly boring debate, I began to wonder whether we were overdue to change the batteries in their robotic response generators.

Fox News Channel hosted a GOP debate in New Hampshire mere hours before Thompson’s announcement hit the airwaves Wednesday.

Thompson skipped it but was dominant even in absentia; moderators asked the candidates about him right out of the chute.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Thompson is the political version of "No-Show George," a reference to country singer George Jones.

Perhaps the candidates were up past Thompson’s bedtime, McCain joked.

"Why the hurry?" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney mused. "Maybe January, February might be a better time to make a final decision about getting in this race."

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered, "I think he’s done a pretty good job of playing my part on ‘Law & Order.’"

During the debate, I realized that U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback reminds me of comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member Norm MacDonald. (Remember the Jeopardy skit where MacDonald portrays Burt Reynolds? The resemblance is uncanny!) Also, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul reminded me of Ralph Nader: intelligent and articulate, but too far out on the fringe for mainstream voters.

McCain performed well throughout the debate and earned high marks especially for his commitment to veto pork-barrel spending as president.

But the focus this week was on the newest candidate. For his part, Thompson breezily brushed off Leno’s suggestion that he had waited too long to get in the race:

"I don’t think people are going to say, ‘You know, that guy would make a very good president, but he just didn’t get in soon enough,’" Thompson said. "If you can’t get your message out in a few months, you’re probably not ever going to get it out."

Voters have watched with a largely ho-hum response as the other candidates have spent money and taken shots at one another all summer. From the sidelines, Thompson has allowed himself to be made conservatives’ white horse; now that he’s in, time will tell whether he’ll be able to meet the sky-high expectations he’s cultivated.

Many questions to be answered following election

(Published 9/1/07)

Much of the work of politics is actually done after the election, when you can reflect on the campaign through the prism of the results and with the benefit of hindsight.

After Tuesday’s triple rejection of the proposed millage increase for schools, there’s a lot of reflecting to be done – not only by school administrators, who now face enrollment, curriculum and facilities challenges without additional funding, but also by residents of Auburn, Opelika and Lee County.

Some people consider it a rejection of school administrators’ financial leadership; others, a wholesale rejection of the growth planning procedures of local governments. And others offered other explanations:

  • In an online forum, one observer suggested that the schools’ decision to pursue seven mills instead of three or five doomed the referenda. Residents would have been happy to support a three- or five-mill increase, he said; instead, school officials erred when they "went for gold."
  • Another person this week said he believed people simply decided that extras, like laptop computers, weren’t integral to having "excellent" schools.
  • Conventional wisdom holds that low turnout is good for potentially controversial issues, like a tax increase. The caveat, of course, is that the turnout has to include a disproportionate number of supporters. Turnout was reported to be 10 percent in Lee County, 17 percent in Opelika and 14 percent in Auburn. It appears that for whatever reason, parents of school-age children didn’t turn out in strong enough numbers.
Another possible but more disturbing explanation for Tuesday’s results is that people here no longer consider excellent schools to be an indispensable part of the community’s identity.

Folks voted no – or not at all – because if the referenda failed, they would still have "really good" schools, one observer opined.

The people have spoken. Here’s hoping the superintendents can get creative.

* * *

Congratulations to the boys of the Little League baseball team from Warner Robins, Ga. In winning the state’s second world title in as many years, they defeated Japan Sunday in an eight-inning thriller on a towering home run from the team’s best hitter.

But it was what happened after the game that had people talking on Monday.

After a few seconds of jubilant celebration befitting a world title, the winners made their way onto the field to console their heartbroken adversaries, some of whom were prone and sobbing on the infield grass. World stage or not, these are 12- and 13-year-old boys, and losing such a big game – especially in extra innings – hurts.

Over the next few minutes, the winners encouraged their opponents. It was heartwarming. The enduring image for me will be of one particular Japanese player who was sobbing so hard that his shoulders heaved. He threw himself into the arms of a taller boy from the Georgia team, who patted him on the back. You could read his lips: "Good game. Good game." I’ve never been prouder of someone I’ve never met.

This scene unfolded on the hallowed grounds of Williamsport just a few hours before Michael Vick pled guilty in the dog fighting scandal that threatens to ruin his career and mere weeks after Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron as the home run king of baseball.

But in Williamsport, if only for a moment, faith in sport was renewed. No performance-based, incentive-laden contracts here; the glory of the game itself is enough.

Sportsmanship, class and pure passion for the game: the pros could learn a lot from the kids from Warner Robins. They are better role models and more heroes than many of the men on the cards they collect.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Choose excellence: Vote yes on Tuesday

(Published 8/25/07)

This area’s public schools are some of our greatest assets, and that’s no accident. Their cultivation, development and achievement are the results of a lot of hard work by many dedicated people and the partnership among educators, local leaders and residents to give children a strong foundation for life.

Success is attractive. Just ask anyone who’s moved here from surrounding areas – or further away – to take advantage of the promise found in our schools.

But with growth comes added challenges, which brings us to this week’s issue.

Voters in Lee County will go to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of a proposed seven-mill property tax increase for education.

It’s easy to vote no. After all, it’s just another tax increase, right? Wrong.

Tuesday’s vote is a good example of when the easy road is not the best one.

The increases sought by Auburn City Schools, Opelika City Schools and Lee County Schools are necessary to maintain the quality of school programs and to adequately prepare for the growth coming to the Lee County area, the systems’ superintendents say.

Opponents’ arguments have included the following:

  • "Why don’t schools plan for growth?" They are. The funding this increase will generate is crucial to their plans.
  • "Why not raise the sales tax instead?" As school officials have noted, property tax is a steadier source of funding than the volatile sales tax. Is it good policy to plan based on a more volatile funding source?
  • "Are there other more pressing needs, such as our infrastructure?" I consider the provision of public education to be one of government’s paramount responsibilities and an integral part of our infrastructure, don’t you?
  • "Computers? That sounds expensive." In this technological age, really? I’m reminded of that old saying: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
I often wonder whether the most vocal opponents of referenda like these have grounded their opposition in reason by attending budget workshops, reading yearly budgets, etc. It’s my experience that usually, they haven’t. So ask yourself: do you trust the carefully considered recommendation of those immersed in the issue and entrusted with the education of your children and grandchildren? Or the opinions of casual observers engaging in drive-by, armchair policymaking?

The question comes down to whether we’ll have excellent schools, as is our tradition, or average schools, as so many less fortunate communities do.

To those of you in Lee County planning to vote no in the wake of events this summer, I encourage you to consider who will be affected by your choice. If you have questions – concerns, even – about the leadership of that school system and its stewardship of your tax dollars, engage your board members. But don’t deny the students the funds they need to excel.

So, vote yes, if even for selfish reasons: Passage will help ensure that your property value will continue to increase – driven, of course, by the strength of public schools.

The Auburn City Schools’ slogan for this effort is "Excellence is a Choice." In other words, excellence doesn’t just happen. It takes effort, and it takes sacrifice. At critical times like these, residents here have made the conscious choice to invest in public education. Will we?

A strong public education system is a gleaming jewel in the crown of any community. It’s good for business, good for property values and good for the future. The people of Lee County have a chance on Tuesday to invest in this community’s crown jewels: our schools, and the children they serve. Don’t let them down.

Taxes on illegal drugs just another strange law

(Published 8/18/07)

I love strange laws. You know the ones: You can’t shoot a rabbit from a waterboat in Kansas. In Florida, single women face fines or arrest for parachuting on Sundays. And in New York, a second conviction for flirting results in the offender having to wear a "pair of horse-blinders" whenever he goes out for a stroll on the city streets.

While these laws are now just reminders of bygone eras, we have modern replacements.

Consider Alabama’s Drugs and Controlled Substances Excise Tax.

According to the Birmingham News, Alabama is one of 20 states that require drug dealers to purchase stamps for the products they sell. Noncompliance can result in prison time and a hefty tax levy.

The law, passed in 1988, covers every type of illegal drug: marijuana, drugs sold by weight, and drugs sold by unit. Stamps range from $3.50 to $40,000 (yes, $40,000).

Steep, yes, but hey – they’re colorful: lime green, deep red and blazing orange.

And did I mention the catchy slogans?

"Say No to Marijuana" and "Say No to Drugs."

Charles Crumbley is the head of the investigations division at the Alabama Department of Revenue and was part of the team that wrote the law.

Dealers needn’t worry that compliance with the state’s drug tax law could lead to unfavorable run-ins with law enforcement, Crumbley said.

Subsection 16 says the law’s intent is to "levy this tax upon illegal drugs in an effort to compensate for the lost revenue from a section of the economy that has not heretofore borne its fair share of the tax burden," not to set a trap for illegal drug dealers.

"Here we have an underground economy, folks that are enriching themselves illegally," Crumbley said. "Drug dealers should be required to pay their fair share of taxes, too."

In fact, he said, the law specifically protects the confidentiality of stamp buyers.

But isn’t it strange to be taxing something that is illegal anyway?

Susan Pace Hamill, a tax law and ethics professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said the law functions more as "negative reinforcement" against drug-related activities than as a revenue-generating operation.

"Obviously, drug dealers are not going to be comfortable sauntering up to the Department of Revenue office and plunking down money to buy these stamps, even with the confidentiality provisions," she said, adding that the stamp tax on illegal drugs functions in much the same way that tax deductions for charitable giving serve as positive reinforcement of those activities.

"So the question becomes, should we be using tax law as an enforcement tool?" Hamill said. "Clearly, it’s not a revenue tool."

Indeed, Crumbley estimates that the system has only raised about $2 million since 1988. The main problem is collections, he said; drug dealers often have their assets condemned.

And so, Crumbley said, stamp collectors comprise a large portion of the stamps’ buyers. And there are curiosity seekers. Lawyers have called and demanded to see the stamps, in disbelief that they really exist. Crumbley has fielded calls from as far away as London. Once, he said, someone called to ask whether a stamp must be affixed to each individual marijuana cigarette (the answer is no; the law was designed to punish dealers and includes minimum thresholds that trigger the tax requirement).

This reminds me of that line in "The Firm," when Tom Cruise’s character presents the Feds with documents implicating his law partners in mail fraud instead of information about the Mafia: "Hey, it’s not sexy, but it’s got teeth."

Tax evasion. It’s not sexy, but it’s got teeth. Just ask Al Capone.

Sometimes homework for parents is a good thing

(Originally published 8/11/07)

My husband and I joined the legions of other parents this week that sent their firstborns to kindergarten.

Facing this rite of passage, we tried to forget how quickly our daughter has grown from being the baby that, it seems, we brought home from the hospital just yesterday. But reminders, like the new haircut that somehow makes her look even older than before, are everywhere.

We met the teacher on Tuesday. Who knew that she would give the year’s first assignment to the parents? She asked for a letter about our daughter – about her experiences, personality, hobbies, interests and learning style. What is important for me to know about your child? she asked. What will help me respond to her individual needs?

And so, after collaborating with my husband, I sat down on Wednesday night to reflect on who our daughter is.

The house was quiet; everyone else was asleep, which is no small miracle in our house with three kids under the age of five. In the silence and with a blank page before me, I pondered the last five and a half years and the way that baby we brought home has become such an integral part of our lives – indeed, how the memory of life before her hardly seems like life at all.

This summer has been big for her. She’s learned to swim. She’s lost a tooth. And she’s beginning to find the courage to face some of her remaining fears.

She became a big sister for the second time. She can work her way through beginners’ books and takes great pride in reading to her younger siblings. She’s as cautious and careful as she is observant and thoughtful, and she cheerfully seizes any chance she has to take care of others.

All in all, her excitement about entering kindergarten and satisfaction with being a "big girl" bring a smile to her face that offers a glimpse of the young woman she will all too soon be.

I wondered, assuredly with countless other parents in quiet rooms throughout the country, where the time went and how I can slow its deceptive pace.

Thursday dawned, and it was fire drill time at our house as we got everything ready to go. It was a whirlwind, and I was fine – until we walked in the door at school.

It all seemed to hit me at that moment. Suddenly I became keenly aware of every moment I’ve spent away from my girl. Excitement fueled her steady step, and she walked with confidence and purpose, even as I slowed and realized that I was holding her hand a little tighter. All at once, we arrived; she took her place among dozens of other bright-eyed boys and girls, and it was time for us to go. I murmured a prayer over her, kissed her cheek and wished her the best, sending her off on the first steps that will eventually lead to her leaving us someday.

I am so thankful to that teacher for our homework assignment. Reflecting on all the wonderful things about our daughter helped me gain a broad, fresh perspective on her life. Perhaps without meaning to, our teacher reminded me to slow down and enjoy our daughter’s all-too-fleeting childhood.

I challenge you to write a letter about the special kids in your life. What would you say about them if you were entrusting them to a stranger? What makes those kids who they are? But beware: Tears often follow on the heels of perspective, and the PTA’s next "Kleenex and Coffee" event isn’t until next year.

Puzzled why Hubbert opposed Byrne's proposals

(Published 8/4/07)

Alabama two-year college system Chancellor Bradley Byrne is getting serious.

Byrne announced this week a series of proposals that would, according to the account by Birmingham News reporter Charles J. Dean:

  • End all personal services contracts lawmakers have with schools;
  • Establish a Division of Internal Audit in the Alabama College System that would oversee financial operations at all schools and report findings directly to the chancellor and the board;
  • Give the chancellor the power to reverse any appointment or assignment of personnel at each college when determined to be contrary to state law or board policy; and
  • Prohibit legislators after the 2010 elections from holding jobs at two-year colleges.
The most controversial of Byrne’s proposals is the provision overhauling the leave rules within the system. It would limit all two-year college employees, including lawmakers, to 10 days of unpaid leave a year. According to the News, lawmakers also would not be allowed to use vacation time or accumulated leave to work in the Legislature, meaning they could serve on only 10 of the 40 or more meeting days in a typical legislative session.

On Wednesday, Alabama Education Association bigwig and state Democratic Party vice chairman Paul Hubbert said Byrne’s proposals are politically motivated, and he pledged to lobby state school board members against their enactment; failing success in that venue, he vowed to sue to block the proposals.

Here’s what I don’t get: Why would Hubbert come out so strongly against something that’s purely hypothetical at this point?

Byrne will meet Monday to give state school board members more information on the proposals and answer their questions.

Given the concern expressed by at least one member of the board about the 10-day rule, it’s likely that Byrne will have to somehow soften that provision to gain passage of the other, arguably more critical parts of his reform package.

It reminded me of a time when I worked in the Florida Legislature. My state representative proposed legislation that would simply require all witnesses before legislative committees to be sworn in before offering testimony on bills. Nine times out of 10, "witnesses," of course, means "lobbyists," because "witnessing" is what they’re paid to do.

Anyway, up until another legislator proposed complete financial disclosure for lobbyists a couple of years later, the "sworn testimony" bill, as it came to be called, earned a reputation among lobbyists as the most egregious legislation against their profession in recent memory. They hated it. The state lobbying organization didn't support it.

We were left wondering why they would react so negatively to the bill. Who knew that asking people to promise to tell the truth would be so onerous? If they were telling the truth anyway in committee, why would they mind taking an oath?

The conclusion was as disturbing as it was obvious. And so it is with Hubbert. Why not make a counter-proposal for the flex time during discussions with the state school board next week?

Could it be because any change to current flex-time rules would be unacceptable? Could it be because Hubbert is looking for any excuse to kill the reform package? Perhaps Hubbert is right: perhaps this fight is politically motivated. After all, according to the News, "most state lawmakers who stand to be affected by two-year Chancellor Bradley Byrne’s proposals to end so-called double dipping are Democrats."

The need for comprehensive reform in Alabama’s two-year college system is undeniable, and undeniably overdue. Here’s hoping that Byrne will be able to muscle some real accountability measures into place before Alabama’s taxpayers are taken to the cleaners - again.

New GOP frontrunner doesn't have a name

(Published 7/21/07)

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released this week introduces us to the new frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, and it’s someone named "None of the Above."

Despite the constant campaigning and posturing by the Big Three - former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - many in the GOP would apparently rather take their chances with an unknown and as-yet unnamed candidate than get behind any of the known quantities.

Giuliani has taken the biggest tumble, dropping 14 percentage points to 21 percent since March, while McCain and Romney sit at 15 and 11 percent, respectively. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to a candidate now make up 23 percent of those polled, up from 14 percent just last month.

Much of this has to do with the candidate-who-isn’t-a-candidate, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who sits comfortably at 19 percent, within the poll’s margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Why hasn’t Thompson gotten in yet? Officials from the campaigns of his potential opponents are virtually daring him to GET IN THE RACE ALREADY. Democratic aides argue that Thompson could be violating campaign finance laws by "ducking" the full financial disclosures and filings required of official candidates, according to Mike Allen of www.politico.com.

Why all the fuss? Because privately, they know what Thompson knows: as long as he can maintain a relatively strong position - and polling as one of the top two candidates without even announcing certainly qualifies - he has nothing to gain by subjecting himself to the rigors of a full-on presidential campaign - or getting "chewed up," as Allen puts it.

With his exploratory committee, Thompson can raise money (he’ll make his first Alabama fundraising appearance in Birmingham on Monday), hire staff, prep for debates and continue "testing the waters" from relative safety on the sidelines while the "Big Three" thrust and parry and hemorrhage precious campaign cash.

As CNN reported this week, the "uneven enthusiasm" and "dissatisfaction" of those in the GOP "underscores the volatility of the ... nomination fight."

I’m betting that will all change when Thompson finally decides to dispense with the toe-in-the-water approach and take the plunge.

* * *

In other news this week, an Australian man was told that doctors sewed a tooth into his forehead following a collision with another player during a rugby match more than three months ago.

Imagine that doctor-patient consultation:

"Hi, Mr. Jones. Thanks for waiting. We’ve finally found the reason for those headaches, eye infections and lethargy you’ve been having. (Clears throat) Well, um, let me put it to you this way. You ever watch Seinfeld?"

"Seinfeld? I guess so. Why? Can I not have soup or something?"

"No, nothing like that. You know the one with the Junior Mint?"


"Well, this is kind of like that, except, it’s ... um, it’s a tooth."


"Yeah, it seems that a tooth lodged in your forehead, and it was sewn in there when you had that nasty wound closed up three months ago."


"Yes, well, we’re all human, and, after all, let’s be honest; with the shape of your forehead (voices trails off) ... Well, it’s a mistake anyone could have made."

(Sounds of lawyers being called)

Also this week, a Colorado man was found to have "squirming fly larvae" living under the skin on his head. He likely received the larval infestation while on a trip to Belize this summer, because, according to the Associated Press, "bot fly infections are not uncommon in parts of Central and South America."

It just goes to show that if you aren’t keeping up with the news, you’re missing out ...

... On some pretty disgusting stuff.

What is it about Obama?

(Published 7/14/07)

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was in Birmingham Monday to kick off the Alabama portion of his campaign.

I became aware of Obama after his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and I’ve followed his progress since Oprah made him her candidate on her show back in October.

What is it about Obama that made people pour into the streets of Springfield, Ill., as he stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol and formally joined the race for president?

And, from a more practical perspective, how was he able to raise $32 million in the second quarter?

So on Monday, it was Obama. In Birmingham. And I have to admit, I was curious.

Tickets to the rally were $25. Interesting, I thought; entry was possible for the price of a couple of meals at a local restaurant.

I admit that I was expecting a predominately African-American crowd. This was Birmingham, and as Obama himself noted, the "shadow" of the 16th Street Baptist Church loomed just a few blocks away.

I was also expecting a predominately young crowd.

Wrong on both counts.

The 2,000 assembled made up as difficult a group to characterize demographically as I have ever been around. A majority of the crowd was white. And there were just as many middle-aged folks as Generation Xers. There were even a few elderly folks, to boot.

Much about the rally itself was typical. But when Obama emerged from behind the curtain, something changed.

He was just as he’s been billed - articulate, poised, relaxed and accessible. He touched on common themes, including health care, the economy, education, climate change and, of course, Iraq.

He only spoke for about 15 minutes, but it was like a combination of African-American church services and a Rolling Stones concert. By the time he was done, even the white folks were saying "Amen!"

I have to admit that even I was drawn in by his statement about being "obsessed with the idea that we can somehow draw out the core decency" of our nation.

People who know me know that I am quite an idealist. I actually had someone joke recently that he was going to beat the idealism out of me.

(What’s wrong with being an idealist? Idealism is what made this country possible, so I don’t understand why more people aren’t idealists. I guess their friends beat it out of them.)

Anyway, as the crowd was dispersing, I saw three middle-aged white women huddled together, chatting. Bingo, I thought; here’s where I’ll get my answers.

Why are you here? I asked them.

"He’s a fresh face," said one.

"He’s so inspiring," said another.

"I brought these binoculars to look into his eyes," said the third. "He’s pure."

But what about Hillary, the women’s candidate? If Hillary has a base, these three 50-something women - a teacher, a freelance writer and a life coach - are it.

"I don’t trust her," said one. "She has too much baggage."

"I can’t respect her," said the next. "She took too much stuff off of her husband."

"I’d be voting for her if it wasn’t for Obama," said the third.

And then, the kicker:

"I haven’t been this excited about politics since the Kennedys," she said.

I wondered on the way home what it is about people that drives them to expect these intangible qualities from their political executives.

Mayors and governors are expected to be "leaders" on a different scale than those who sit on city councils and county commissions and serve in state legislatures. Executives are expected to "lead," but legislators are simply expected to be able to "work together" (notable exceptions include the Taiwan Legislature and the Alabama Senate).

Obama has come a long way since that night on the Boston stage in 2004. And he’s staked his claim as a frontrunner by talking about hope for the country and the dreams of its citizens.

He’s a dynamic speaker, no doubt about it. But time will tell whether it will be enough to put him in the White House.

Carcinogens, commutations and class: Musings from the past week

(Published 7/7/07)

Let’s look at three recent events this week.

• The Alabama Environmental Management Commission rejected a petition by 18 environmental and citizens groups that would have brought Alabama’s water quality standards in line with most other states, including most of our neighbors.

Petitioners said the higher standards would result in a 90 percent reduction in the amount of carcinogens that industry dumps into state waters. Alabamians eat more locally caught fish than people in neighboring states, and Alabamians also have a higher incidence of cancer, they say.

Industry heavyweights opposed the changes, citing concerns about the affordability of compliance under the proposed standards. Commissioners ultimately agreed to study the issue over the coming months and meet again on Oct. 19.

Here’s my question: What is the state spending on medical care for its citizens stricken with cancer? I’m no doctor, and I don’t know what exactly would constitute a "clear link" between currently acceptable pollution standards and cancer rates. But it would seem to me that a reduction in, for example, the amount of arsenic (yes, arsenic) dumped at some plants - from 58 pounds per day under current standards to fewer than six pounds per day, as proposed - could conceivably make a dent in our state’s cancer rate.

I agree that Alabama needs industry. But can’t we find a more appropriate balance between the desirable aspects of industry and its deleterious byproducts?

The bottom line is that someone will pay for the pollution. Will it be the state and its taxpayers, or the industry that produces it? We’ll find out on Oct. 19.

• President Bush commuted Scooter Libby’s prison term: Talk about fireworks in the middle of an otherwise bland off-week in Washington. Wow!

Here’s what I don’t get: If the president believed that Libby was innocent of the charges against him (perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators), then why not pardon him completely? Bush did leave the door open for a complete pardon if Libby pursues one, but if he believes Libby to be innocent, why wait?

On the other hand, if Bush doesn’t believe Libby to be innocent, then why intervene at all?

Some GOP bloggers have speculated that Bush tried to walk a fine line between completely exonerating Libby and leaving him to the mercy of the prison system. Bush left in place the fine and probation periods, they say; that is punishment enough.

But rather than coming down on one side or the other, Bush straddled the fence: he’s claiming to respect the decision of the court on one hand while dismissing its lawfully considered sentence on the other. It doesn’t make sense, legally or politically.

• NBA player Derek Fisher asked for and received a release from his contract with the Utah Jazz. He walked away from $21 million to be with his wife and four children as they look for the best treatment for Fisher’s 11-month-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare and potentially fatal cancer of the eye.

Obviously, Fisher has his priorities in line, and his family has the prayers and best wishes of so many as they pursue healing for their little girl. But perhaps the real hero in this story is Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.

Fisher made it clear that he doesn’t intend to retire, so Miller’s agreement to release him means that Fisher, a talented guard and at 30, a veteran of three NBA championships in Los Angeles, could potentially end up standing in the way of a Jazz title. Miller could have attached any number of provisions, non-compete clauses and otherwise, to the release. But he didn’t.

In a world where many professional athletes and teams are now noted as much for their antics off the field and out of season as they are for their play, and in a time when teammates punch each other and coaches crawl combat-style across the field like a two-year-old to protest an umpire’s call, it’s good to know that there is still some sanity and humanity in professional sports.

Political donations should be off-limits for journalists

(Published 6/30/07)

In a report published last week, MSNBC.com said that of the 143 journalists included in its study of their political donations, 125 contributed to Democratic candidates and causes, 16 to Republicans and two to both parties.

The report (which, incidentally, likely doubled MSNBC’s usual web traffic for the month), was happily welcomed by the right. It proves the left-leaning bias of the press, GOPers smugly said.

What struck me about the report was not the breakdown of the donors by party (honestly, is there anyone out there who really believes that journalists are politically evenly divided?). Instead, it was the unapologetic, even combative attitude of many of the journalists MSNBC contacted for reaction.

For example, MSNBC reported that New Yorker writer Mark Singer wrote the magazine’s profile of Howard Dean during the 2004 campaign, then gave $250 to America Coming Together and its efforts to defeat President Bush. In the report, Singer admits that "probably there should be a rule against (journalists donating to political causes)." But, he notes, "there’s a rule against murder. If someone had murdered Hitler - a journalist interviewing him had murdered him - the world would be a better place. As a citizen, I can only feel good about participating in a get-out-the-vote effort to get rid of George Bush, who has been the most destructive president in my lifetime. I certainly don’t regret it."

Rule One, the bedrock principle, of journalism is objectivity, one’s ability to tell something fairly. And, as MSNBC notes, "appearing to be fair is part of being fair." Those who tell the story are expected to be above the fray.

The journalists interviewed by MSNBC defend their activity as something that doesn’t compromise their ability to be objective. Their professional output is not impacted by what they do on their personal time. Trust us, they say.

But forgive the public if they don’t, especially when donors include people like - I’m not making this up - the ethics columnist at The New York Times.

In what must be a coincidence, MSNBC also said Americans don’t trust the news or newspeople as much as they used to. Even though two-thirds of those polled say they prefer to get news from sources without a particular point of view, 72 percent say news organizations tend to favor one side, the highest level of skepticism in the poll’s 20-year history.

Wait - how’d people get that idea? Personal political activity doesn’t manifest itself in reporters’ professional output, remember? They told us so.

The MSNBC report has led to significant fallout in the industry. Embarrassed boardroom brass are, ahem, "reassessing" their internal political activity policies because of it.

The bottom line is that journalists are called to a higher standard when they assume the public trust of their posts.

It’s always been part of our job, humbly accepted by those who assume these duties and rightfully expected by those who read and watch us. If journalists can’t help themselves from being more activist than reporter, they’re in the wrong line of work.

Journalists need not check their personal opinions at the doors of their jobs. Indeed, no one is without bias; that’s a simple fact of humanity. What sets journalists apart is their ability - and commitment - to recognize their personal leanings and account for them when telling a story, so that the story is as fair and accurate as it can be.

One doesn’t meet that lofty measure by writing checks for political purposes. That’s always been the case. The difference now is that a disturbing number of reporters don’t seem to understand that basic principle of fairness - or care.

Elected leaders should focus attention on child safety

(Published 6/21/07)

Consider this sampling of recent newspaper headlines:

• "Day Care Worker: I Bound Boy With Masking Tape to Keep Him Quiet:" The two-year-old Oklahoma boy died.
• "Man Charged With Hiring Hit Man to Kill Family:" This Massachusetts man directed the hit man to pump two bullets each into the heads of his wife and mother-in-law but shoot his 7-year-old daughter in the chest, instead, because he wanted her to have an open-casket funeral.
• "South African Woman Guilty of Hiring Hit Squad to Kill Baby:" In this, the first known contract killing of an infant in South Africa, the woman arranged for the murder of her lover’s six-month-old baby daughter, who was stabbed in the neck.
• "Police: Washington Man Drowned Child for $200,000 Insurance Policy:" The Associated Press reported that the man "has a history of dating single mothers, urging them to take out insurance policies and harming their children, including burning the hands of one and giving another a hot cup that blistered her lips."

These are just a few of the examples of the kinds of abhorrent things that are happening to children around the world. There are literally hundreds of thousands of other little boys and girls being neglected and abused, even as you read these words.

Here in Alabama, an editorial in Monday’s Tuscaloosa News noted that "it has been hard to get Alabama’s elected leaders interested in investing more in abuse and neglect prevention programs."

Why? Um, perhaps it’s because they are too busy giving themselves 62 percent pay raises and insulting and punching each other. But I digress.

Why is it so difficult to get elected leaders to focus attention on efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect? If there’s ever been a role for government, it’s protecting children.

Still, as any child services advocate would tell you, it’s rough going in state capitals when it comes to funding. After all, children don’t vote. Perhaps more tellingly, they don’t write campaign checks, either.

But there’s no public outcry on this issue. Is our apparent callousness the reason it is so difficult to get elected officials involved?

The authors of one study, released last week by the University of Alabama, are apparently trying to speak to legislators in a language they’ll understand. Their report says that child abuse adds up to approximately $521 million every year, in direct costs, like hospitalization and child welfare system costs, and indirect costs, like lost productivity to society and adult criminality, according to the Associated Press.

Also according to the AP, the deputy director of the Department of Child Abuse and Neglect said the new information "helps advocates by giving them easy-to-grasp figures for use when talking to legislators about budgeting needs."

Because, you know, the bar is extremely high when it comes to proving the worthiness of projects funded by the state.

Sidebar: I wonder ... did State Sen. Phil Poole produce such documentation when he got $1 million allocated from the General Fund for road projects in his district?

I’ll go out on a limb and say ... no.

Alabamians reported 26,992 cases of child abuse last year alone. The financial costs may add up to $521 million a year, but they pale in comparison to the immense suffering borne by these young victims.

Studies show that abuse prevention efforts result in fewer abused and neglected kids. That the Legislature won’t invest more in them is just the latest in a long line of inexplicable and inexcusable failures at the Alabama State House.

Never too young to appreciate voting habits

(Originally published 6/13/07)

(Author's note: On June 6, 2007, Alabama State Sen. Charles Bishop slugged fellow Sen. Lowell Barron in the face on the Senate floor, saying Barron called him a vulgar name. Thanks to an Alabama Public Television camera that had been running in the Senate chamber at the time, the tape of "The Punch" made national and international news.)

I took my two young daughters with me to vote in the special election last week. On the way, I reminded them: no running. No jumping. No yelling. Voting is serious business, I said. It’s not playtime.

(Actually, in my former life as a campaign manager, I encountered a lot of adults who should have been reminded of those things, too. But that’s another subject.)

At a table across from the friendly lady who checked me in, I sat my girls down next to me and marked the ballot.

Then I let them use the pen to trace the lines.

I explained how the collection machine would "eat" the ballot and count it with the others.

The girls watched, wide-eyed, as our ballot disappeared. My youngest, especially, was in awe: "COOL!" she said. The man at the door helped me include them in the process; he gave us all "I Voted" stickers, which they proudly wore to preschool.

As we left, I explained to them why voting is so important. It’s kind of like when Daddy and I are planning dinner and we ask them what they would like. They have choices: pizza or hamburgers? Chicken or macaroni? Voting, I said, is making choices. It’s how people decide who will be in charge and, in some cases, how things will work, in their town, state and country.

Voting is one of the special things about being an American. In a lot of countries around the world, people aren’t asked how they want things done; they are just told, I said. It would be like Mom and Dad making liver soup every night. They would have to eat it, even though it’s yucky.

I don’t know how much of this my girls understand. But, just in case, I take them to vote every time I have a chance. I want to instill good habits in them. I want them growing up with a clear understanding that voting is one of the happy burdens of being an American. I want them to be honored to do it.

Then came the brouhaha in the Alabama Senate.

In this space a couple of weeks ago, I said that unless that body could get itself straightened out and do its job, every Alabamian should vote his or her senator out of office at the earliest opportunity.

Again, I could only shake my head at the sheer arrogance that paved the way for this latest disgrace against this state and its citizens.

I don’t care who started it, or why. All I care about is that the lofty lessons I am trying to teach my daughters about their government were laid to waste by men who act more like spoiled little brats at recess than mature adults who understand the awesome responsibility of governing others.

As we watched the tape of the incident on national news networks, I thought about all the unethical, unprofessional and downright disgraceful behavior by politicians at every level of government. I wondered why there isn’t more public outrage about it.

Politicians will do just what they can get away with, and as long as they think you’re not watching or that you don’t care, you shouldn’t expect that they’ll change.

The bottom line is that if you don’t show up at the polls to give these clowns and their cronies their walking papers, you’re giving them the green light to keep it up.

Last week, we got to see what can happen when you vote -- and when you don’t.

I hope my girls, and their fellow Alabamians, remember it.

Compulsory service an issue worth discussing

(Published 6/6/07)

New Hampshire was the scene Sunday of yet another painfully early and overly crowded presidential debate.

These early debates are usually useless for anything else than giving the candidates opportunities to catch each other in what may become "gotchas" later in the campaign.

But this debate actually included an interesting question.

It came from an 18-year-old student who will graduate from high school this summer. He spent last summer in Germany with a family whose oldest son was "completing his one year of mandatory service to his country." The young man asked the candidates whether they would support such a policy and if so, how they would make it happen.

Former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel was first to answer.

Gravel said the country doesn’t need the draft, but he would prefer to see a voluntary system "where young people would have an opportunity to render public service," in the military, Peace Corps or Americorps.

Isn’t that what we have now? I thought.

Then, presumably out of instinct, and - well, this was a Democratic debate, after all - Gravel proposed yet another crippling government entitlement program:

"And then for every year that you serve, we’ll give you four years of school free. That would give you an incentive to move forward and do something about education in this country."

I was confused. Gravel extolled the virtues of volunteerism but apparently doesn’t think those virtues are virtuous enough to draw people on their own.

I fought the urge to change the channel when U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich led off his answer by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy.

He went on to agree with Gravel’s volunteer approach but didn’t mention the service-for-school proposal.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd agreed that the draft isn’t needed and said, "But I like the idea ... to provide the kind of financial relief."

Did he mean he agreed with Gravel’s proposal? It wasn’t clear.

Then Dodd made a statement about "the rip-offs that are occurring - with people manipulating through deceit and fraud - the student loan programs."

Hold on. Why would someone concerned about student loan fraud support the creation of a new program that increases the opportunities for fraud?

We don’t know what frontrunners U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton or U.S. Sen. Barack Obama think about this; they didn’t offer opinions.

But I wish they had. I think it’s an interesting concept to require a year of service - not necessarily military service, but some sort of service to the country - of young people leaving high school.

It makes sense that the advantages to the nation, and to those volunteering, would be multiplied if everyone participated.

In addition to the obvious benefit of investing a year of their lives for the good of their country, young people might find career opportunities they never dreamed existed. (How many high schoolers know what Americorps is, for example?)

And those who entered college after their year of service, in addition to being a year older, would likely be better disciplined and better able to handle the freedoms that come with college life. Think about how that would improve college retention rates - and what it could do for those student-loan fraud concerns.

Think of how it would impact the worldview of young people - and what that would mean for their political involvement.

Wait - maybe that’s why politicians shy away from the idea.

Is the Land of Opportunity worthy of a year of service from its young citizens? It’s something worth discussing over the next 17 months.

Alabama Senate becoming difficult to keep up with

(Published 5/23/07)

If you’re anything like me, you’re having a hard time understanding what’s going on in the Alabama Senate.

Let’s review: the Alabama Senate is mired in the legislative version of molasses in January, just as it has been since the beginning of session. It seems that the 18 Democrats who managed a majority and organized the Senate produced a set of rules that the 12 Republicans and five Democrats on the minority side just can’t live with.

Among the rule changes are provisions that would allow the majority to force votes on redistricting and limit debate on budgets to 30 minutes per side. And, as one legislator observed, you don’t carry ammunition unless you plan on doing a little hunting.

So those on the short end have refused to allow anything to pass the Senate, with the exceptions of a few, crucial bills, like funding to rebuild Enterprise High School, economic incentives for ThyssenKrupp and - oh, yes, that all-important legislative pay raise.

Which brings us to this week ...

Rumors abound in Montgomery about efforts to forge some sort of compromise that would allow the budgets to pass. If they don’t pass, everyone will gather again in Montgomery this summer for what is sure to be another round of congenial fun.

One political blog pointed out over the weekend that although the majority side does hold 18 votes, 2000 U.S. Census data shows that senators on the minority side represent 50.73 percent of Alabamians.

I have heard people say things like, "To the victor go the spoils," and so forth. What you think about the stalemate in the Senate depends largely on your philosophy of leadership, i.e., whether you believe that landslide elections create mandates, etc.

But no matter the philosophy behind the argument, the point here is not who represents more Alabamians, who has 18 votes in the Senate, who has what "responsibilities" and who is "standing on principle." The bottom line is that, whatever the reason, 100 percent of Alabamians have a dysfunctional Senate.

I used to work in the Florida Legislature, so I’m no stranger to politics and how it’s played. But I have little tolerance for the unique sort of stubbornness that permeates the Alabama Senate.

Either these grown men and women have no idea how to work with each other - and that’s a scary thought, considering they are supposed to be the more "deliberative body" and are charged with making laws governing the rest of us - or they simply don’t care enough about the people of Alabama to try. In either event, what is left is a state that is miserably underserved by 35 people drunk with hubris.

In addition to the good policy that will be lost if the Senate can’t get to work - like PAC-to-PAC reform - local bills of all kinds hang in the balance, including three bills that would allow the people of Lee County to vote on additional money for education.

If the Alabama Senate ends up in special session this summer, I challenge every resident of this state to write himself the following note and keep it on the refrigerator until the next election:

"Throw the bums out."

Take measures to give kids safe summer

(Published 5/11/07)

It’s the second week of May, and deejays across the country are dusting off Alice Cooper’s perennial kid favorite, "School’s Out for Summer."

I remember riding home on the bus and pondering all the amazing things that seemed possible, for no other reason than school was out. Lazy days playing in the yard. Swimming in the pool. Foot races with the boys down the street. Softball games. Climbing trees and G.I. Joe battles. The possibilities seemed endless.

But for so many families across the country, summertime means something else, something more sinister: It’s the time when physicians see a spike in serious injuries and deaths among kids.

According to The Safe Kids U.S. Summer Safety Ranking Report, 2,143 children died in the U.S. between May 1 and Aug. 31, 2004 - an astonishing average of 17 children per day - and 2.4 million children made visits to the emergency room with accidental injuries that resulted in paralysis, brain damage and other serious disabilities.

Each of the five most common causes of these accidental injuries and deaths increases by double digits over the annual monthly average, the report says. Drownings increase 89 percent, biking-related injuries and deaths increase 45 percent, falls increase 21 percent, injuries from motor vehicle incidents increase 20 percent and pedestrian injuries increase 16 percent.

The most tragic thing about those numbers is the report’s finding that many of those deaths and injuries were completely preventable. Precautions are relatively simple and inexpensive:

• Never, never let your child around water without proper supervision. It only takes a moment for him to slip into the water undetected.
• Make your children wear their helmets - even if they’re just riding their bikes in front of your house. In this age of cell phones and iPods, you never know when some distracted driver is going to come careening around the corner. The report says that properly-fitting bike helmets are proven to reduce the risk of brain injury by as much as 88 percent.
• Install safety devices like window guards on windows above the first floor. Horseplay doesn’t have to mean tragedy.
• Make your children wear their seatbelts or ride in their car seats - every time you drive. Aside from it being the law, this should be a non-negotiable rule in your home. Car crashes produce some of the most catastrophic injuries to unrestrained children.
• Review with them the precautions to take when they are walking. They should always stay on sidewalks and only cross streets in crosswalks, or at intersections with stop signs if no crosswalk is provided. They should never dart out in the road. Remind them to look both ways and use the buddy system.

There is enough about parenting that you can’t control; why not minimize the risks you can? Your child may think you’re a paranoid worrywart. He may roll his eyes or heave that heavy sigh of childhood frustration. But isn’t your child’s life worth the time and effort? Your advice could save his life.

Summertime is the time for endless possibilities, endless fun and memories to last a lifetime. But statistics suggest that more than 2,000 children across the country will not make it back to school in the fall.

Don’t let your child be one of them.

Turning 30 doesn't have to be all that bad

(Published 4/25/07)

I’m going to be 30 this week.

Oh, I’m not telling you for your own information so much as I am trying to convince myself. Thirty. It seems so ... mature.

When I was a kid, 30 seemed so distant. Thirty-somethings were - well, grown-ups. People in their 30s have mortgages, car payments and kids.

Oh, wait - me, too.

Turning 30 has always seemed to me to be the time when grown-ups have to decide whether they are going to start (ugh, this phrase) "aging gracefully," or if they are going to fight it tooth and nail.

I’ve begun to pay a little more attention to the commercials that promise me easy ways to cover up the gray that is slowly creeping into my hair. And I am sorry to admit that I know more about alpha hydroxy cream than I did a couple of years ago.

My life has taken some turns over the last 18 months that I never expected. I always thought I would make my life in the town where I was raised and around the people I had always known. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Our family is putting down new roots here, in hopes that our daughters will grow up in a town where they’ll want to stay when they’re older.

Professionally, I have spent my time since college in different and varied pursuits. I’ve taught high school, which I never could have foreseen even two weeks before I took the job. But it was a great experience that restored my faith in a younger generation. I’ve worked in politics and government, which was as much an exercise in the development of patience as it was exciting to be a part of potential changes in public policy. And then there’s this newspaper thing that has peppered my adult life. I guess there’s no way I could have missed it; I suppose that my being the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers is a reasonable explanation for the draw I continue to feel to this sometimes crazy but ever-rewarding public service.

My first "Happy 30th Birthday" card arrived last week, sent from a friend I made when we were fifth-graders. We battled braces, boys and broken hearts together. Over the past year, she’s lived and worked in London, globetrotting for a week or two at a time and drinking in the culture of far-flung corners of the world. Looking with longing at her pictures of exotic locales, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’ll ever get to travel that way.

Perhaps because she turned 30 earlier this month, her card put 30 in perspective for me. She lauded me for making the most of my first 30 years - interesting, I thought, since I’ve thought she was the one making the most of life. As I read her words, suddenly it became clear: It isn’t about the specific activities you’ve pursued or even whether you’ve checked boxes off your "Things-to-do-before-I’m-30" list. It’s about whether you’ve made the most of the time.

So when I consider my 30 years in totality, 30 is a lot less daunting. So what if I haven’t made the culinary magic I dreamed about when, as a newlywed, I sorted through all those kitchen appliances and accessories? It doesn’t matter to my 5-year-old that I make Hamburger Helper - she still thinks I’m a great cook, and that’s what matters to me.

Am I making the most of the time? I’ll keep asking myself that question. It should make facing 40 a snap.