Farmers, like Young, defend the indefensible

January 25, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

DEFENDING the indefensible puts you in an untenable position. That's what Larry Young's supporters may eventually discover. And it is what Maryland farmers may discover in trying to stop the state from mandating how much fertilizer and chicken manure can be applied to their fields.

Look first at Mr. Young's predicament.

Open and shut case

He has been expelled from the state Senate for flagrantly using his public office for private gain. The evidence was overwhelming.

He claimed ignorance -- after 24 years in the legislature -- and portrayed himself as a martyred black politician being crucified by the white power structure in Annapolis. His supporters, many from his own church, say ''everybody does it'' in the State House, so why pick on a black politician? They also claim he did nothing wrong.

That's a hard sell. He did do something wrong. It was blatant.

He took $34,000 from Coppin State College for doing little more than what he should have been doing as an elected official.

He billed health-care companies for services rendered at exorbitant rates -- all the while presiding over health-care bills in the legislature that affect these companies.

All of his Senate colleagues -- black as well as white -- thought he had engaged in grievous misconduct. They only disagreed over the degree of punishment.

The 46 votes for censure were telling. My Webster's defines ''censure'' as ''condemning as wrong; strong disapproval.'' Not one senator defended Mr. Young's actions as proper.

That puts clergy in Mr. Young's community on a slippery moral slope in defending the former senator. It should give all his defenders pause.

What he did may or may not be criminal: That is up to the state prosecutor and the U.S. attorney to decide. But the Senate and a joint House-Senate committee unanimously found his actions to be highly unethical. From a moral standpoint, Mr. Young's actions are not something you'd want to hold up as an example of proper behavior.

There is a clear difference between right and wrong. Mr. Young boldly crossed the line. It's not even a close call. Even worse, he's been around long enough to know better.

While supporting Mr. Young vociferously may be good for Radio One Inc. owner Cathy Hughes and the profitability of her radio stations, and it may be good for Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who craves Mr. Young's Senate seat, it does irreparable harm to race relations in the Baltimore region.

Decent, honorable leaders in the black community, like Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, wind up trying to defend a sleazy, dishonorable character like Mr. Young. They end up defending the indefensible -- and demeaning themselves in the process.

Questionable practices

Similarly, farmers find themselves defending agricultural practices that honestly cannot be defended.

Nutrient runoffs from farmland, especially phosphorus runoffs, have been scientifically linked to a troubling environmental problem in the Chesapeake Bay -- the toxic Pfiesteria scare last summer that almost surely will return this year. Overuse of chicken manure as fertilizer on Eastern Shore farms has contributed mightily to this serious health problem.

How can the farming community rail against efforts in Annapolis to address what is a distressing public-health and environmental problem?

Indeed, it is hard for nonfarmers to understand why all the commotion over a proposal to require nutrient-management plans on all farms. It is shocking that all farmers don't employ such a strategy already. But many do not. A voluntary program won't work.

Agrarian strategy

If the farmers had a viable alternative approach to stemming the phosphorus runoffs and the overuse of chicken manure as fertilizer on the Eastern Shore, they would be on solid ground. The governor's Pfiesteria-prevention program is ripe for revision. But they don't have a plan -- other than a return to the status quo.

That's tantamount to opposing efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, or opposing steps to ward off threats to public health. It's the equivalent of opposing motherhood and apple pie. And, like the case of Larry Young's supporters, it's an indefensible position.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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