Editor's Weekly: Truth And Politics

Jul 24, 2014

"I caution people all the time that when you're dealing with public policy not to be completely driven by logic."—Taxi commission chairman Louis Hamilton

That burst of candor, reported by St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann, helped to illuminate what was really going on this week as the commission grappled with questions that will determine whether Uber and Lyft operate here.

Credit (courtesy of Uber)

On the surface, the debate was about such arcane details as where so-called black cars could park. Actually, it’s the latest faceoff in a national confrontation between the trendy ride services and taxis. Uber and Lyft are prized for creating cachet and competition; taxi drivers fear for their livelihoods.

As Hamilton’s statement implies, public policy debates such as this don't always make sense at first glance. Look deeper and you can see that they are an amalgam of facts, politics, emotions and influential interests. Many of these elements are rarely discussed openly, but they have powerful impact.

You might think of Hamilton’s statement as a warning label: Citizens beware. Public policy decisions may contain hidden motives and irrational thinking.

Let’s apply that warning label to several matters in the news this week and see what it reveals.

What's really going on with Normandy? Less than a month before school starts, students and parents still face major uncertainties, as St. Louis Public Radio’s Dale Singer reported. The state board of education again tweaked student transfer rules this week. But state officials have failed to resolve tuition disputes that may prevent students from attending school elsewhere.

Credit File photo

Everyone claims to have the best interests of students at heart. But state officials seem to be acting with the bottom line in mind. Last year, they forced the old Normandy board to pay full tuition to other districts despite the board’s fears that Normandy would run out of money as a result. It did.

This year, state officials are more directly responsible for the reconstituted district, and they capped tuition payments well below what most other districts are willing to accept. That will help solve Normandy’s financial problems, but may prevent some students from being able to transfer.

What's really going on in the St. Louis county executive race? Incumbent Democrat Charlie Dooley recently launched a couple of vicious guilt-by-association attacks against his primary challenger, Steve Stenger.

Charlie Dooley
Credit Parth Shah / St. Louis Public Radio

Dooley also threw a wrench into plans for a debate hosted by St. Louis Public Radio (but managed to show up for an interview this week on St. Louis On The Air at a time he had said he couldn’t appear for a debate.) One can only guess that Dooley is scrambling to control some unpleasant political realities about his own prospects that he’d rather not discuss.

What's really going on with Republican Todd Akin? His new book revived the controversy over his statements about rape. First time around, that controversy sank his Senate campaign against Claire McCaskill and embarrassed the establishment wing of the Republican Party in Missouri and nationally.

Akin says now that his biggest mistake was to apologize in the face of what he regards as unjust criticism. Again, many Republicans are trying to distance themselves; several Missouri party leaders declined to discuss the matter, political reporter Jo Mannies found.

Todd Akin
Credit File photo | Nicole Hudson | St. Louis Beacon

Fresh from a round of national appearances, Akin was a guest on St. Louis On The Air this week. Some listeners asked why St. Louis Public Radio would choose to put him in the spotlight. The situation is ironic. Akin criticizes the press for being hostile while some listeners fault us paying attention.

What's really going on with Akin? Who knows? But I do know that he claims to speak from the heart rather than from political calculation, that his brand of conservatism has a following in our state and that it’s an important influence nationally. 

As Lou Hamilton reminds us, public policy is the product of many forces. At St. Louis Public Radio, we aim to shine a light on them all.