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Teaching Democracy, Texas Style

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
July 1st, 2004

James Mayfield and Al Haines of Houston, Texas, were hired by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International of North Carolina, under a $167 million contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to "foster efficient, transparent, and accountable sub-national government that supports the country's transition to sovereignty" to 180 Iraqi cities and towns.

Mayfield, a 70-year-old emeritus professor of the University of Utah who had just completed a three-year stint running a Mormon mission in the Houston suburbs, was hired to teach a core group Iraqis and expatriates about RTI's plan for democracy, which would then be carried by the group to the far corners of Iraq.


More on RTI

Inventing Iraqi Democracy in North Carolina

Selections not Elections


Mayfield ran his classes at Hilla, 80 miles south of Baghdad, in a crypt-like room at the rear of a huge mosque that Saddam Hussein built to his own glory in the closing passage of his 24-year rule.

Mayfield described an incident in Hilla in his email blog on August 3, 2003: "Last night I went to one of these neighborhood council meetings. About 100 people came to a local school where I made a presentation. I talked about the possibility of establishing a democratic system in their neighborhood. Many of them stood up and spoke; even one woman had the courage to stand. Finally, a young man, 17 or 18 and asked me a tough question. 'How will democracy help me find a job?'

"I told him that when the dictatorship in Japan was destroyed after World War II, the Japanese people had to wait nearly 9 years before they had a functioning democracy. And now they are one of the richest countries in the world. I said to the young Iraqi, 'If you ask a Japanese man, “Was it worth waiting nine years to have a democracy in Japan?”, all Japanese will say, “Yes, it was worth the wait." Then I said, 'Please be patient. It will not take nine years, probably or two or three years. Can you be patient?' He said, 'No, I need money now!!'

"I then stopped the conversation and said to all the people in the meeting, 'Please note this young man. He is the future of Iraq. He stood up with courage, faced me and asked me a tough question. This is what democracy is about. If this boy had stood up and asked a hard question under Saddam Hussein, he probably would have been shot.' Then I said, 'I want to congratulate this young man. I want to applaud his courage.'

“Suddenly, the whole audience stood up and openly applauded this young man. He was smiling so happily, and I gave him a thumbs up sign, and he returned it to me and I knew I had made a friend."

When Mayfield went to the neighborhood council meeting the next time, he found out that this young man had been elected to be the council member for his neighborhood. "Someday he will be a leader in Iraq," Mayfield observed.

Critics might see the incident more cynically, guessing that many who attended these trainings and meetings were there to seek jobs or power, not to participate in democracy.

Another example of the motives of the attendees comes from New York Times reporter John Burns, who was invited to attend one of Mayfield's classes in December of 2003. There, he met Sayed Farqad Al-Qiswini, the president of the theological college that took over the mosque after the invasion. Al-Qiswini told him, "We are chameleons," boasting that one year prior he could have been found at the mosque singing the praises of Saddam Hussein. (Indeed, today, Qiswini is a local strongman for Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical young cleric that has since become the bane of the American occupation.).

But Mayfield, a committed Mormon who prayed regularly with local soldiers, was convinced that he was wanted in Iraq and that the experiment was succeeding. In his email blog, he wrote: "Oil production is up, wages are increasing, consumer goods are filling the shelves, public services are better and, according to a Washington Times report, nearly a million more Iraqis have cars since Hussein was overthrown.

RTI soon rewarded him with a very fancy car of his own on January 12, 2004, which he described in his blog: "A $200,000 all bullet proof car because I am the regional director and I have to travel all over the region on a regular basis. The windows are two inches thick; it is completely enclosed, with three radios, a siren, built-in loud speaker to call for help, and all leather seats. These are built for ambassadors and have special tires that can drive even if hit with a bullet. Now I have been here almost eight months and never once has anyone shot at me, but I have had to wear a thick very heavy, very uncomfortable bullet-proof vest. In the eight months, I never had to use it. Thank goodness. Now I won't have to wear my vest anymore. They can shoot at me all day and I will be perfectly safe."

Meanwhile, not all his students were not convinced of his ideas. Jerry Kuhaida, a former mayor from Tennessee, told CorpWatch: "I got this feeling that it was his last hurrah and he wasn't really open to any other ideas. It was his way or no way, but the problem was that his way was an academic way. I've spent 15 years in city government, and I'm not sure his was would even work in the United States."

Kuhaida also related horror stories of how Mayfield would use critical military resources to distribute the medical supplies that the Mormons donated to his community. "We never asked for them, and in fact we never got what we had asked for,” he said. “Instead, we had spend a phenomenal amount of money-tens of thousands of dollars-transporting this stuff under armed guard. And a lot of it just ended up stacked up in my driveway and I had to figure out who to give it to."

From Texas, a Man with a Big Pension

Mayfield's counterpart in Baghdad was Al Haines, who had also just arrived from Houston. But unlike the retired preacher and professor, he was a former city official who had quit his job after a string of embarrassing debacles ranging from a failure to balance the budget to using his position to triple his own pension.

Haines retired from his position as Houston's chief administrative officer, and went to Iraq to lead a team to advise the city of Baghdad.

He left just over two months before his boss, Mayor Lee Brown, was scheduled to step down after completing the maximum three terms in office. He left behind ongoing complaints that dogged the mayor and Haines about their inability to solve the city's financial crisis. At the end of 2000, for instance, Haines had to beg for a last-minute loan. He sought $8 million from the city's health benefits fund and $1 million from workers' compensation so the city could pay the almost 9,000 minute police officers and firefighters on December 29th. "It's beyond me how something like that could happen. It's not like making payroll is a surprise," Councilwoman Annise Parker said.

Haines' defense was that there were strict rules on how much cash the city can have on hand without facing a penalty from the Internal Revenue Service. But that past June, the city council had been forced to vote on a transfer of $30 million between funds, in part to pay employees, two days before paychecks went out. And in 1999, the city faced a cash shortfall of $38 million after overestimating tax revenues.

Bad fiscal management has plagued most cities in the United States, but what makes Haines somewhat unusual was that under his watch, the pension board strapped the city government with a $1.3 billion debt in 2003. That debt was projected to hit $1.8 billion by 2009.

A Houston Chronicle analysis in March 2004, five months after Haines departed, showed that his pension rose from $36,000 a year under the old 1998 plan, negotiated before he took office, to $103,000 under the new 2003 plan, which he was in charge of negotiating. As calculated by the Chronicle, Haines is projected to get 71.3% of his final salary of $145,000 for his 10.9 years with the city. Had the rules stayed as they were in 1998, he would be getting just under 25 percent.

In an e-mail interview conducted with the Chronicle, Haines said most pension changes during the Brown administration were made to compensate for extremely low salaries earned by city workers.

City officials fumed. "Government is not here to make a few people rich," Shelly Sekula-Gibbs, a furious Houston city council member, told Channel 11 News. But Haines was already almost half a world away, living on the Saddam Hussein's son's palace property. As far as Haines was concerned, the two cities were pretty similar. "In Houston, we have 88 neighborhoods, and in Baghdad you have 88 neighborhoods," he said. And he marveled the similar discussions among people in city meetings. "The similarities are unbelievable,” he told Cox News Service. “People make their arguments, and I've heard them before."

The RTI officials sent Ibrahem Mustaf Hussain, the deputy mayor of Baghdad, who oversaw that city's water and sewer system, on a tour of Houston. Hussain also noted the similarities: "It's about 88 councils (we) have. The second thing: The city is flat, like Baghdad,” he told National Public Radio. “And the services what you have in Houston are similar to what we have. I mean, the sewer network - same equipment. We use the same thing as we have, the same problems with the roads they have."