There comes a point when the norm-breaking, destructive behavior of a politician is no longer his responsibility alone, but that of his enablers. We’ve seen this with Donald Trump for the past five years. The very same politicians of his own party who once denounced him before he was elected are now numbers in his political harem, as Bob Woodward details in his new book, debasing themselves at his command for the short term power grab he affords. The hell with endangering democratic norms, the hell with protecting institutional civility.
We saw the very same dynamic at work this week on the much smaller scale of the Flagler County Commission. That scale became even smaller and more contemptible thanks to Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan and fellow-Commissioner Don O’Brien. They allowed Joe Mullins to get away with publicly insulting Commissioners Greg Hansen and Charlie Ericksen. O’Brien and Sullivan refused to join Hansen and Ericksen to censure him.
We’ve always known that Mullins is a vulgar little arrested adolescent who gets off on demeaning others and flashing his money to grease his narcissism. He doesn’t know governance from gumbo, but he knows how to buy his vassals. Early on he bought off County Administrator Jerry Cameron in a slick deal that cleared Cameron’s mortgage, ironically placing the administrator forever in the commissioner’s debt. Mullins threw money at a PR company O’Brien’s son owns and has been a loud backer of Sullivan’s and O’Brien’s reelection campaigns. I could understand how scared they were to endanger that. But as the commission’s two more thoughtful men, I didn’t think they’d debase themselves to the point of licking his boots while turning their back on Hansen and Ericksen, and of course on the commission itself and what it represents.
It wasn’t just their astonishing refusal to censure Mullins–or Sullivans’s nonsensical refusal to let the public weigh in on the motion–but the rationale they spoke, that leaked venality. Respect for the commission, and therefore voters, was irrelevant. They made it all about themselves. Basically, as long as Mullins isn’t coming for them, they’re going to give him cover.
“He without sin, go ahead and cast the first stone,” O’Brien said, cherry-picking scriptures before turning to a pile of stones and hurling them at fellow-Commissioner Greg Hansen, who has been critical of Mullins. O’Brien spent more time stoning Hansen than he did setting Mullins straight. He might’ve paid more attention to scriptures’ admonition against double-minded people, not to mention its cautions against the arrogance of self-aggrandizers.
Here’s O’Brien massaging the indefensible when he was asked about his stance at Wednesday’s Tiger Bay forum: “I specifically did not vote for a resolution of censure because I felt that it was a document that had no weight of law and no penal effect whatsoever. But I felt that my words and my comments were, you know, just as strong as a resolution would have been and got the job done in terms of communicating how I felt.”
O’Brien’s claim that a censure has no weight of law is a rubbish deflection. The state Supreme Court censures lawyers and judges from time to time without going further, without removing them or suspending them, because the weight of the court behind that motion represents the weight of the state, and is enough to send a message that respect for the institution is paramount. That’s what Hansen and Ericksen were asking for. That’s what O’Brien refused to do while hiding behind his red herring. The way he put it, he actually thinks that his own words have more effect than the institutional words of a commission resolution. Maybe next time the commission adopts a resolution honoring veterans or decrying racism, they should just let Daniel Webster O’Brien speak his own words instead and leave it at that.
Sullivan’s reasoning was equally self-absorbed. He’d learned that in a century of commission history there’d never been a censure vote, which is not surprising when you consider that in a century of commissioners there’d never been a specimen as abject as Joe Mullins. But Sullivan sent a message. He didn’t care about the institution. What he cared about was his record. “I personally as chairman don’t want to be the chairman who’s the chairman when we voted to censure someone,” Sullivan said, again making it all about himself. The hell with the commission as an institution and with the voters it represents.
Both Sullivan and O’Brien had spent the weekend before the meeting furiously figuring out with Cameron’s administration how to get Hansen to back off and protect Mullins from a censure that could’ve caught the governor’s attention and led to more serious consequences. The deal was done by the time they got to the meeting, their lawyered acquittal a Babel of double-talk. For good measure they even had Mullins vote on the censure motion.
For a moment there I thought he just might apply to the situation Steps 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of his 12-step program and vote for censure. But that would have presumed nobility from an ignoble man. Of course he voted no. Days later at Ericksen’s retirement lunch Mullins got him a gift certificate for a massage. I doubt he grasped the irony. But it was as emblematic a gift as any from a man who’s turned a majority of the commission into his own massage parlor.
Mullins is quick to remind us every chance he gets that he’s a recovering addict, even repeatedly using the county’s PR office to play himself up on that score. As he well knows, addiction is often and unfortunately exacerbated by its enablers. That’s what Sullivan and O’Brien are to Mullins, and not for the first time. Last December and again in February they both refused to draw a line against his attacks on constituents, emboldening him instead. They are cowering enablers of his bigotry, his bullying, his indecency. Mullins must be laughing all the way to his next offense.