Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Jodie Mahony, man of the people

In 1971, Jodie Mahony joined the ranks of a tribe that now must number more than 4,000 — people who were elected to the Arkansas General Assembly from statehood in 1837 until today. Measured by his own ambitions, Mahony would be as anonymous as all the others. He never held or sought another office, never held or sought the prestigious titles in the legislature like speaker and president pro tempore that come with long service or accumulated influence, never rattled the chandeliers with his bombast or moved hearts with his eloquence, and as far as anyone can tell his 36 years in the legislature and the huge compendium of laws that he wrote never brought him the faintest personal advancement like wealth and social or professional station.

He was just a legislator. But, man, what a legislator! William Faulkner was just a writer.

They will bury Joseph K. Mahony II today at El Dorado, which he represented in the state House of Representatives for 28 years and the Senate for eight years. Actually, the people of that community only elected him; it is not extravagant to say that he represented the public interest, not of his own bailiwick but the whole state. If the General Assembly were in session, it would adjourn to El Dorado today for that is what he has meant to that institution.

On the day after term limits ended his service, in spite of the ravages of cancer he was back at the Capitol advising the lawmakers. No elected member of the Assembly has worked harder or longer in the intervening three years to see that the budgets were tight and the crucial lawmaking thoughtful and rational.

If schedules and the family permit, governors will testify today about Mahony’s indispensable help in making them successful: Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker, Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe with each one’s spasm of education reform, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor with the raft of political and governmental reforms they undertook in the 1970s, when Mahony was about the youngest but least callow member of the Assembly.

The news stories and tributes this week dwelled on Mahony’s style and haberdashery. His uniform was always the same, an ancient but stylish tweed jacket, rumpled khaki slacks, loosened collar and tie and scuffed Docksiders. His trademark was a cardboard box, ragged and darkened from years of daily handling, in which all his bills and research were kept. He toted it from committee to committee.

Our image of Mahony dates to 1983, when he introduced and fought for a bill to raise the severance tax on natural gas, which until last year was left virtually untaxed owing to the vast power of the gas industry and its allied interests, not the least of which were Mahony’s own family, clients and friends. Education needed the money. He fell a little short of getting the three-fourths of the House to raise the tax. That’s what separated him from most legislators and most public officials. Self-interest was just not a factor. There are never enough Jodie Mahonys.

—Ernie Dumas