Mick Ireland: Guest Opinion
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I disagree with the basic premises and conclusions of Charlie Leonard’s column criticizing me for failing to fully dedicate myself to the accumulation of wealth (“What is tax fairness? The mayor explains,” Aug. 9, The Aspen Times).
One of the most powerful speakers of the U.S. House, Sam Rayburn, once said an honest politician will die broke. He served 20 years in that very powerful post and ended his life with a net worth of about $15,000. He was known for putting honesty above wealth. I think I am ahead of “Mr. Sam” in net worth and aspire to be as honest as he was known to be.
Leonard accuses me of asking my community to support what he calls a “lifestyle choice” that he finds insufficiently lucrative to put me in a “free market” residence. He called me to quiz me for almost an hour on my billing rates, my number of clients, the identity of my clients and my pro bono hours. He repeatedly challenged me to defend my “lifestyle.”
Leonard’s attack was spurred by my posting my 2010 tax return online showing that I paid a higher rate of taxation in 2010 (16.9 percent) on $65,000 in multi-job income, a rate 3 percent higher than the 13.9 percent Mitt Romney paid on $21 million in mostly capital gain and investment income in the same year. I assume he supports Paul Ryan’s plan to reduce Romney’s tax burden to 0.82 percent by eliminating tax on capital gains, a plan that also increases the burden on have-less people like myself. He knows I support the Obama proposal to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes on the very wealthy and reducing spending.
Did the community make a wise investment in me and my peers by helping us get a stake in Aspen through affordable housing? Let the reader judge.
I came to Aspen in 1979 with nothing but college loans to pay off ($30,000 paid in full) and a willingness to work. At the time, with only a degree in psychology, I took work as a dish washer, bus driver, graphic designer, laborer and journalist. With two and sometimes three full- and part-time jobs, I paid off my loans, saved money, and learned that working a “double” or a “triple” in Aspen isn’t a baseball term, it means working two or three shifts consecutively. People without great wealth still do that here.
My first two full-time jobs paid $4.75 an hour. Service work retains a dignity and importance that I respect and that others of higher income sometimes do not. There was, when I arrived, an Aspen that respected ski instructors, bus drivers, journalists and other service workers alongside investment bankers, movie stars and celebrities.
I chose or was called to politics by a desire to make life better for others. My family honors that sort of “lifestyle” – two sisters in law enforcement, an aunt who was a Dominican nun, two parents who met while serving in World War II. Teachers, service workers, public service – I guess we just didn’t get it or we missed the “Atlas Shrugged” memo. Paul Ryan’s heroine, Ayn Rand, calls such lifestyle choices foolish.
In the past 20 years, we in Aspen created the second largest transit system in the state. We made our Open Space program happen at three elections. We bought Smuggler Mountain and the Rio Grande Trail. The Droste property isn’t a privatized luxury subdivision because we acted to save it. We bargained for and got minimum stream flow in Brush Creek. Burlingame became a reality after two votes and saw the birth of more Aspen babies in 2010 than the West End, Cemetery Lane and Red Mountain put together. We fought for a Healthy Community Fund that has devoted millions of dollars to seniors, disabled persons and needy children. We built a roundabout that works without local tax dollars and joined it to HOV lanes, a new Maroon Creek bridge and a workable highway/bus corridor.
Would any of this happened without me being part of the we? Without others in affordable housing being included in the community? I worked hard for all those causes during hours that Mr. Leonard would prefer I had spent billing people for legal services.
I also testified in Washington, D.C., for roadless areas, successfully lobbied senators for higher CAFE mileage standards, asked congress for housing and energy improvement bonds and water rights for the valley. I served for a decade on the State Transportation Advisory Committee, was named to Gov. Ritter’s Blue Ribbon state transportation panel twice, and testified to the state legislature on affordable housing legislation that took 10 years to pass and protect our prior agreements with the private sector.
Along the way, I was a substitute teacher a few times, tutored the young, read to the little ones, registered a thousand voters from all parties, worked on World Cup, helped bring a major bike race here, restarted the Buddy Program, helped elect Barack Obama, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall along with a bunch of other good public servants. I also coached baseball and softball, raced on bikes, on foot and on skis, losing most of those and winning a few. I also worked on trails and formed and did the legal work and obtained city funding for the nonprofit 501(c)(3)now known as the Buddy Program. Lots of hours, Mr. Leonard, no pay. You say bad, I say good.
When I say “we” I don’t mean it royally, I mean it as a community. I went door to door so many times on behalf of the above causes that I probably know more local geography than Google can map. Would all of this have happened if I had chosen tax planning or estate management full time? I don’t know. I doubt that all of the progress we made would have happened in my absence and hardly any of it would have happened if my peers adhered to the greed-is-good mantra.
Long before Mr. Leonard arrived, my neighbors in affordable housing and outside of it created a community with hard work and shared values. We taxed ourselves, volunteered and put the greater good ahead of the material and immediate to make Aspen one of the great places to visit, live, retire and raise a family.
And we did it without off shoring our investments, outsourcing our labor or smashing any unions.
I am proud to have served this community and to have been a part in making it better. We built this place as a we, partnering with our government and our private sector and our shared values that go beyond personal gain. I am proud to have chosen to play a small part in building a great place. I am convinced the community investment in myself, my family, my neighbors and friends who do so much work here is a good one.
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