Aug 6 2012

Joe Citizen

Local politics is something I know virtually nothing about, but provides some interesting food for thought. Who you know matters here perhaps more than anywhere, both in determining who you will actually vote for (largely because you’ve heard of them) and who you might volunteer for.

In the case of the first matter, most local candidates are unknown outside of certain circles. Whether the candidate is part of the two-party apparatus, or a advocate-turned-activist, a club leader or school volunteer, or in these modern times a contributor and commenter in local online news web sites, the circles are very probably quite small. In my community, perhaps 100,000 people have the opportunity to vote for city council, and even those relatively high-profile citizens are largely unknown. Fairly large amounts of money are required to do the printing and mailing that will change pure ignorance into hazy awareness. For offices that have no ballot statement, the obstacles are even higher, since these candidates are very likely running on shoe string budgets without any real means of engaging voters easily. There is a significant burden of work on both the candidate and the voter: the candidate to spread the word and pound the pavement, and the voter to learn what a candidate truly stands for and whether they deserve a vote.

When it comes to working on a candidate’s behalf, the local question can become one of “which friend do I support?” Since those willing or able or motivated to lend a hand are likely people who spend time in many civic groups, it’s reasonable to expect that one might know and work with competitors. I recently learned that endorsements in local campaigns are difficult to come by, and I feel certain this is at least part of that calculus. How do I endorse Steve without offending Mary? Should I contribute to both? If Steve supports this issue, will those who oppose the issue then oppose Steve and others I endorse? Or perhaps me, if I someday choose to run for an office? Apparently, some local groups will actually endorse all candidates, which seems patently silly. Many—especially individuals—endorse none. I find this reasonable, but peculiar. Since most local candidates have true goals to achieve or build of fix, it seems bizarre that anyone might worry about such political machinations. I would posit that this is tantamount to the cronyism that most Americans oppose, and yet it is undoubtedly human nature.

So the question is how can Joe be a truly good citizen? To me, the answer is about rising above rivalries and loyalties to ideas and communication. Those in local politics must be brave enough to advance their ideas on the merits of those ideas, and to trust that others in the community will see, understand, and respect issues and candidates on the merits. We must also be particularly aware of the organizations that want to manipulate us—corporations, unions, and political parties, especially. These folks have savvy and resources, and perhaps even more importantly, the loyalty of their followers. Taking a stand is a significant challenge for the local politician, and thus voters need to be especially thoughtful and questioning about what and who can make a real positive difference for the community.