Weekly column by Sharon Byrne
As campaign season limps into its final stretch (and this one’s been rather a snore), I wondered, what should we expect from would-be council members? What would get me across the finish line?
There will always be issues. Sometimes issues can serve as a litmus test for where a candidate will stand on similar issues in the future. So it’s always good to look at those, but even better is to ask, what do you expect of a council member, regardless of what issues present themselves?
Part of the problem is that running for office is so divorced from the actual job of governing. Campaigns are part beauty contest, personality contest and a whole lot of strategy and marketing. Thus it’s reasonable to expect that the “product” you’ve been sold won’t necessarily perform as advertised, any more than wrinkle creams purporting to transform you into the 17-year-old face shown in the ad.
The best politicians both know how to win office, and what to do with it. And we are indeed electing politicians. Inspired to serve sounds great, but politics is about power and organization. We can claim to hate politics, but try organizing society any other way. No one’s ever done it.
Just as we love the feel-good candidate who might not be able to execute in office, we have a hard time liking the truly effective folks. They make for mediocre candidates. Those are the ones I pay the most attention to, actually. I want to know what they plan to do because I already know they’re going to be effective at doing it.
There’s a way to push past the party thing, too. Some people won’t vote for a Republican, or a Dem, on principle. I am an Indy. I have to work with everyone. So how can you do that, if you don’t agree with something(s) their party supports?
Here are some qualities I look for to cut past the mailers, the TV ads, the party bosses, the lengthy lists of endorsements and all that campaign noise:
Listen and learn. The moment you think you know it all, you’re in trouble. What you don’t know can really hurt you. Even if someone presents his/her case poorly, or annoys you, realize that he/she has taken the time to construct a worldview, whatever that is. You may not agree with it. But there’s always this chance, however remote, that they’re on to something. So, at least look like you’re listening, because you might learn something possibly really valuable, like a tiny titter of advance warning of a huge looming issue. Better to get on the topside of that wave, than be blindsided and dragged under by it.
Don’t try to save the world. Just steer the city. And do that carefully. Thoughtfully. Cities have fairly narrow scope, but they get asked to do a lot by their citizens. And the feds and state love to punt ever more responsibility to cities, while stripping them of funding in the process. Cities provide public safety, roads, traffic lights, fire hydrants and firemen, and some regulations over businesses operating in their jurisdiction. Sometimes they try to decide what kinds of businesses should be operating. They set rules for how things will be built, so you don’t build a roller coaster in your backyard, that sort of thing. That’s enough to keep them very busy spending tax monies. Thus, beware the “save the world” types who promise to eradicate income gaps, end homelessness and spearhead new social programs for all cities to emulate. They can’t possibly deliver. And if they try, they’ll likely be siphoning off precious city resources for their endeavors. Fix the potholes before you go off saving the world. It’s not glamorous. But that’s the job.
Say no to your backers, when you need to. Ouch. They hosted fundraisers for you. They put out walking teams for you. And now they want something that is not good for the city. You’re councilmember of ALL citizens, not just those who supported your campaign. Say no when you need to. Better to risk supporter ire than get turned out of office by an angered majority.
Be an adult, and have a thick skin. Doing the right thing isn’t always popular, and doing the popular thing isn’t always right. Everyone’s not always going to agree with you. Work together when you can, where you can, like adults. If your ego needs a lot of stroking, politics isn’t for you. Try Hollywood. You need a thick skin for this job.
Respect The Citizens. You’d think that would be automatic, but no. Neighborhoods have risen up in protest when some noxious land use is about to be zoned into their midst. They’re upset often for very sound reasons. Maybe it’s not actually authorized by federal law, like the dispensaries. Or it’s going to bring serious problems to the area with zero mitigation, like a large homeless shelter. Arrogant scorn for such concerns, demeaning them as “NIMBYism,” is hardly the right response. So be respectful.
It’s a short list, really. But candidates in possession of these qualities tend to be reasonable, sensible, and equipped for the job. Interview them. Attend forums. And find out who meets these tests before you cast your vote.