Northwest Arkansas Blogging: On Cockroach Caucuses, Urban Growth Machines, and Airports
Michael Bates of BatesLine received a cease-and-desist letter from the Tulsa World's attorneys demanding, among other things, that he stop linking to the newspaper:
....we hereby demand that you immediately remove any Tulsa World material from your website, to include unauthorized links to our website, and cease and desist from any further use or dissemination of our copyrighted content.The World has reason for its ill feelings toward Mr. Bates. In the past, BatesLine has described the World's editors as part of the Tulsa "Cockroach Caucus," otherwise known as "the 'Developers, Chamber, and Establishment' party," and a "cluster of special interests which has been trying to run the City of Tulsa without public input, and preferably without public debate." More recently, he elaborated on the nature of the Cockroach Caucus:
The World is more than just an observer of the local scene. It is an integral part of the tight social network that has run local politics for as long as anyone can remember. This network... has pursued its own selfish interests under the name of civic progress, with disastrous results for the ordinary citizens of Tulsa and its metropolitan area....Talk about deja vu! Change a few of the names, and he could be talking about Fayetteville, Ark.; but I guess every town has its Cockroach Caucus. Harvey Molotch, working from a sort of Millsian Power Elite theory, calls them "urban growth machines": basically a smaller version of C. Wright Mills' Power Elite, but operating on a local scale. In essence Molotch's growth machines were exactly what Bates describes in Tulsa: a coalition of corporate welfare queens from the real estate developers, banks, and Chamber of Commerce, all united in their ambition to gorge themselves on billion-dollar slop at the public trough.
The Cockroach Caucus is most recently infamous for convincing state and local elected officials to pour $47 million in public funds into Great Plains Airlines.... It went bankrupt, leaving local taxpayers liable for millions in loan guarantees. Many leading lights of the Cockroach Caucus, including World Publishing Company, were investors in Great Plains Airlines.
The Cockroach Caucus has wasted tens of millions in public funds on failed economic development strategies...., and has bent and sometimes broken the rules of the land use planning system to favor those with political and financial connections. The same small number of connected insiders circulates from one city authority, board, or commission to another, controlling city policy, but beyond the reach of the democratic process.
Here in Northwest Arkansas, the Cockroach Caucus represents mainly Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt, and the Jim Lindsey real estate agency. Like C. Wright Mills' national Power Elite (and like its Tulsa counterpart), our local Cockroach Caucus unites all the major economic and political organizations in the area, through a constant revolving door of good ol' boy personnel, into a single interlocking directorate of oligarchies.
The local monument to our Cockroach Caucus is the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which was completed in 1998. The movers and shakers behind the Airport were a nominally private organization called the Northwest Arkansas Council--despite its pretensions to be a "public interest" advocacy group, actually a shadow government built in 1990 around a core membership of Tysons, Waltons and Hunts. The Northwest Arkansas Council's central mission was to lobby for the "infrastructure" the area needed for "economic growth"--i.e., for subsidized highway and airport pork to line the pockets of the Tysons, Waltons, Hunts, and Lindseys at taxpayer expense.
Following extensive undercover lobbying by the NWA Council, several city and county governments voted in 1990 to create an intergovernmental NWA Regional Airport Authority. Intergovernmental authorities, under state law, are immortal so long as any of the member governments remain party to it; and they have all sorts of interesting powers, like the power to issue bonds and condemn property. The creation of this authority was presented to the people of Northwest Arkansas as a fait accompli. Given the immortality of the Authority, and the extent of its powers, you might expect its creation to be a matter for extensive public debate. You would be wrong. The local governments, for the most part, voted on it as an emergency measure: no prior public notice, no public debate, no multiple readings, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Some local aldermen and members of county government explicitly stated that they acted in secret because they didn't want the Great Unwashed gumming up the works.
That was smart thinking on their part. See, the rich bastards had been trying, periodically, to shove a regional airport project down our throats since the 1970s. And each time, it was voted down in a public referendum. This time, they decided it would be a whole lot easier without all that democratic nonsense to slow things down.
The result, when we woke up the next morning and learned about the fait accompli, was a public outcry and a polarizing debate. In the process of that debate, the authority's chairman subjected airport critics to a barrage of ridicule. They were, he said, just "troublemakers" and "aginners," "housewives" who didn't know enough about the issues to have a valid opinion. An elite group within the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, known as "Leadership Fayetteville," held special seminars for the creme de la creme of the good ol' boy Power Elite to discuss ways of dealing with the "small but vocal minority" who wanted to "hijack" area progress (quite an interesting exercise in mirror-imaging, that). Following their conclave, as a result of Cockroach Caucus pressure on the owners of the main Fayetteville newspaper and a major radio station, an editor and DJ who had called for a public vote on the issue were fired.
Before it was over, the pressure for a public vote was just too great to resist. The citizens of each member city and county were allowed to vote in 1992 on whether to remain in the Authority. But the Cockroach Caucus put together a propaganda barrage that no doubt made Josef Goebbels chuckle with approval from the depths of Hell. If a local government voted to withdraw, they shrieked, the citizens would "lose their voice" because they would no longer have any say in the Authority. Of course--that was the whole point of setting it up that way in the first place: the Frankenstein's monster was deliberately created so that it couldn't be destroyed except by the unanimous action of all seven member governments. The Cockroach Caucus designed the Authority so that once it was sprung on the public, there would be virtually no way to destroy it. As for our "voice," the process was rigged from the beginning to make sure we wouldn't have one. Odd that people who engineered a secret vote would be so worried about us "losing our voice," don't you think?
Along the way, there were some pretty entertaining howlers. For example, the FAA proposal drawn up by the Authority's consultants initially called for a cargo airport: there was, they said, insufficient demand to justify a passenger facility. On the FAA's ruling that insufficient demand existed for a cargo port, the consultants reversed course and drew up a new proposal for a passenger airport! But a passenger airport with runways long enough to accomodate fully laden cargo jets! Can you say "Trojan horse"?
My late father, who was a policeman in Springdale, used to say that regular organized crime couldn't get a foothold in this area because the competition from the good ol' boys in the Chambers of Commerce and City Councils was too stiff.