The battle lines were clearly drawn for the July 20 Jefferson Parish vote on whether or not to raise parish sales taxes to benefit public schools. On the pro-tax side was the formidable leadership of Jefferson Parish's major educational, political and business organizations, a group that was well represented by business leader Henry Shane, who strode to the microphone at a joint Jefferson-Orleans business luncheon days before the election to advocate the tax increase.
As Shane spoke, most of those gathered in attendance nodded their heads in agreement. The belief of most of the Jefferson Parish in-crowd was that the tax was necessary for salary increases and for increased insurance costs.
Yet, that group -- and the leadership of the Parish -- proved no match for the other side: Margaret Baird and Margie Seeman, who four years ago co-founded Citizens Against New Taxes (CANT).
Baird and Seeman are twin sisters who live near each other in Metairie (both demur when asked their age). They were co-valedictorians at Metairie High School, each has four children, and they both consider Ronald Reagan to be their political hero. Together, they have led boycotts against Dan Rather, protests against President Bill Clinton and staged rallies in support of George W. Bush. Now, they are joined together over the principle of lower taxes.
"I'm a political junkie," confesses Baird, a full-time volunteer. Seeman, meanwhile, juggles her political work around her position as a computer analyst at the National Finance Center. "Mainly I'm under the influence of my sister on political issues," Seeman admits.
Before returning home to Metairie, Baird lived for 27 years in Houston, where she led a successful tax rollback movement and worked feverishly for Republican candidates such as Sen. Phil Gramm and then-Gov. George W. Bush. Baird is particularly proud of her work in a local public school district in Houston, where she served as a watchdog and tax fighter. "Before I left, they had to check with me before they ever did anything. Now, since I've left, things have fallen apart," she says.
Like Baird, Seeman calls herself a conservative, but says she flirted with liberalism for two years when she lived in California. For 20 years, Seeman says, she focused her time on her family and job. "Margaret came here and all of a sudden, I became very politically active," she says.
In the spring of 1998, Baird and Seeman formed CANT, a non-partisan organization with no secretary, no office, no official letterhead and no real expenses. The twins operate the organization out of Baird's home on a busy street in Metairie. "I like living on a busy street because you can put up a big political sign and everyone will see it," Baird says.
Baird and Seeman are both public school graduates, and their children also attended public schools (Seeman's children graduated from Catholic schools). Yet they say they the school system doesn't spend its money wisely and is addled by waste and poor management. On its initial foray, CANT lost a 1998 school tax election that re-dedicated 4 mills. Baird and Seeman say the experience taught them how politics work in Jefferson Parish, and when the new tax proposal went on the ballot, they were ready.
With a circa-1990 computer, outdated voter database and an automated dialing system, they made 43,000 calls urging voters to oppose the tax. They staged a Taxpayers Watchdog Parade, with real dogs, in front of Baird's home. The pair also went door-to-door passing out literature (at one stop, Baird stumbled on a step and broke her wrist) and appeared on local media to debate school board members.
After the tax was defeated by a surprisingly wide margin of 63 percent to 37 percent, the CANT phone began ringing off the hook with would-be volunteers. Yet Baird and Seeman say they aren't yet interested in accepting donations -- they might start a Web site and a newsletter, but they don't want to start spending a lot of money.
After all, there's a certain freedom that comes with being thrifty. During the past election, CANT was accused of not filing proper paperwork with the Board of Ethics. Yet CANT was not required to file any forms because they spent less than $200. The $150 the twins did spend went to flyers and hand-drawn posters and buttons, with Seeman's young grandson Jeffrey Olivier coloring in illustrations of watchdogs. (By contrast, tax increase supporters budgeted $75,000 for their side of the campaign.)
Their election won, neither Baird nor Seeman say they are looking to become paid consultants or run for office. Rather, they plan to bring their message to upcoming school board meetings, and they are looking for school board candidates to support. "We thought we were a long shot because of their money and their support," says Baird. "This has renewed my faith in the system because the little guy won."
- Tracie Morris/Young Studio
- Twin sisters Margaret Baird and Margie Seeman say their phone is ringing off the hook following the July 20 defeat of the school tax.