But in the corner of Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins' office, there has stood a little Ronald Reagan doll. It's about a foot tall, and Ronnie wields an axe.
The tiny statue is typical of Collins' office decoration. Among the family photos and community club certificates, she has adorned her walls with photos of former President George W. Bush and Scott Stantis' editorial cartoons (even the less flattering ones). A large white elephant lamp sits on a table behind her desk. She keeps a biography of Margaret Thatcher on her bookshelf. Her mementos and trinkets have mythologized her ideology.
She was once the queen of the Jefferson County GOP, but now she's fleeing her courthouse castle. The pitchforks-and-torches crowd is storming the gate. Last week, Collins announced she would not be running for reelection. After more than 30 years in politics, Collins is bowing out before voters can put her head in a basket.
Perhaps this is one of those cases of "be careful what you wish for." For years, Collins sat on the sidelines at Jefferson County, marginalized by a commission majority that was leading the county toward disaster. Then-Commission President Larry Langford had four votes — Shelia Smoot, Gary White, Mary Buckelew and his own. Week after week, Collins was frequently the loan dissenter, abandoned by her Republican-in-name-only colleagues.
When Buckelew, White and Langford were being wined, dined and bribed by bond bankers on trips to New York, Collins remained behind to blast their spending of taxpayer money on suites at The Plaza Hotel.
The other commissioners wouldn't let Collins play their reindeer games. Commissioners, county officials and bond bankers, invented schemes to hide their machinations from her. Testimony at the Langford trial revealed why — they knew she'd leak everything to the press.
A few years later, Collins would say, "There are benefits to being left out of the loop."
It should be noted, though, that while Collins was a vocal critic of the county's debt dealings, she voted for most bond deals and interest rate swaps.
If you read through the Internet message boards or listen to talk radio, you'll hear that pitchforks crowd calling for Collins' indictment, but there's only one instance I've ever seen that warranted that kind of scrutiny.
During the corruption trial of former Commissioner John Katopodis, Collins admitted she accepted $10,000 from one of Katopodis' county-funded charities. The money was for consulting and promotional work she did on an high-speed rail project, she said, although the work she actually performed looked all but identical to her work as a commissioner.
The $10,000 payment went to Collins at the same time then-HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy was paying Katopodis to lobby Jefferson County for tax breaks for the digital hospital. Perhaps that was a coincidence. Because of the Justice Department's latency and the statute of limitations, we'll never know.
By the time Katopodis' check became public knowledge, Collins was a political goner, anyway.
On the commission, she had been the Anti-Langford. In 2006, she and two other Republican candidates campaigned with the same slogan: "No debt, no dome, no Democrats." After Commissioners Jim Carns and Bobby Humphryes won election, Collins wasn't alone on the dais anymore. She had her commission majority. She became commission president just in time for all hell to break loose.
The county's $3.2 billion debt and the interest rate swaps built on top of it were already in place. When the national financial crisis hit in 2008, that debt structure was a sandcastle in a tsunami. A chain reaction of events, left the county with interest rates as high as 10 percent, more than it could pay. A years-long negotiation with Wall Street began, and Collins botched it badly.
Collins has coveted power her whole political career, and once she had it, she became jealous of it. She began to keep secrets from her commission allies, Carns and Humphryes, and they began to keep secrets from her. When she discovered Carns and the county's financial adviser were covertly lobbying the federal government for help, she fired the adviser and she double-crossed Carns and Humphryes.
Joining with Commissioners Smoot and William Bell, Collins worked across party lines to consolidate her power and get revenge on Carns and Humphryes. The trouble with being an ideologue is that working across party lines becomes untenable to your constituents. Carns called Collins' alliance the new Democratic majority.
Collins' power play sent the county caterwauling out of control. She misplaced her trust in two men — bond lawyer Bill Slaughter and Gov. Bob Riley.
As the county's bond lawyer, Slaughter had helped put together many of the deals that were imploding. Testimony during the Langford trial has indicated that he also helped obscure the roles of Bill Blount and Randy Wilhelm in the county's bond dealings. Slaughter has vehemently denied doing so. Regardless, by the summer of 2008, he drew the ire of the pitchforks and torches. Bumper stickers appeared around town. They read, "Don't get Slaughtered." Slaughter lost his temper and erupted in a press conference when reporters asked whether anyone but the county might be to blame for the crisis.
Meanwhile, Gov. Riley's record of competence began to wane. His simplistic notion of bankruptcy and its consequences disallowed the county from playing hardball with Wall Street.
Collins did not create the county's problems, but her character dictated how she dealt with those problems. She responded with panic and paranoia. When the occupational tax lawsuit left the county without a major revenue stream, she looked less like a regional leader and more like Marie Antoinette.
But despite Collins' faults, two questions remain for her critics now storming the castle: Who can do better, and how?
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com