A few years ago I became so frustrated with what was going with our politics at the federal level, I began to disengage. Like someone coming upon a horrible car accident that chooses to look away, I too looked away.
I looked away because I knew there is nothing that I could do to change what was happening in Washington D.C. I was tired of the ideological debates happily engaged in by both liberals and conservatives with the sole purpose of driving people apart. I felt insulted by what the MSNBC’s and talk radio jocks passed off as “information.” I was sad to see, what I thought were credible news organizations, sleeping on the job.
So I began to seek an alternative way to make a difference. I wanted to, as they say, “move the needle.”
Over five years ago I decided to get involved at the local level. It seemed logical – I had lived in Tallahassee since 1989, I owned a local business, and my children attended local schools.
So I stepped up! And what I wild ride it has been.
Since that time I have run, unsuccessfully, for local office three times. Early on I thought I had busted through the partisan divide, subsequent elections proved I was so very wrong.
With each loss, came disappointment but also a new experience, renewed hope and an additional perspective.
Over these years I have talked to thousands of people, people who cast their vote for and against me. I have come to know our locally elected officials and the local government employees that make critical decisions that affect our lives.
I know the “monied interests” that fuel the local political machine. I have watched local print, television, and radio reporters cover local government.
With all this experience, I have concluded that our local government is infected by the same political disease that has taken over Congress and can best be summarized as “keep the natives happy, reward your friends, and above all else, get re-elected.”
I know, I know this is sounds so negative! But wait!
The goal of today’s politician is to personalize an election, make the opponent unacceptable in an emotional way so as not to engage in a debate on the issues of the day. Our elections have become nothing more than exercises in personal attacks. During the latest national cycle, you were either a Nancy Pelosi clone or a woman hating Republican.
Here locally, Republicans who venture out in the world of non-partisan elections are labeled tea partiers. The same thing happens in Republican leaning cities where Democrats become nothing more than Obama supporters.
And during this process a discussion about important issues gets lost.
Check this out.
During this last election cycle, the City of Tallahassee overwhelmingly elected two City Commissioners who opposed the independent ethics officer ballot initiative that garnished almost 70% of the vote.
Their opponents supported the ballot initiative.
The winners raised over $370,000. Their opponents did not make it to $40,000.
Sure, some will say that the losing candidates had fatal flaws. However, that does not change the fact that there was a major disconnect over an important issue with the electorate and the eventual winners of an election.
The good news I get from this result is that issues mean something, if and only if you can separate the issue from personalities and the well-funded campaign of a slick politician.
Which brings me to an important question about “moving the needle” in our community.
What other issues could be addressed here in Tallahassee through ballot initiatives that political leaders are able to run from during election time?
What about a citizen’s review board for public safety? What about an independent utility board? What about residency requirements for elected officials? What about campaign limits on government vendors?
Unlike at the federal level, local governments provide less onerous barriers to self-government through ballot initiatives. This is a powerful tool that can make a local government more responsive to the needs of a community.
The key is that it takes a few people to get engaged and to provide information to an electorate that I believe is hungry for an opportunity to have a real impact on government without having to deal with a “car wreck” during each election cycle.