David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Monday, July 25, 2011
What I Want in My Candidates
I recently held forth on the weeks or months potential candidates spend considering whether to run or not. This early phase of our electoral process is below the radar for most offices, but it's as important as anything in our politics. We must get the right kind of people on the ballot, so we can vote for them. Today's topic is how to recognize them once they're on the ballot. Listen to an audio podcast of this post.
The candidate filing period for many offices in Utah closed Friday, July 15, at 5:00 p.m. Twelve minutes later, knowing my interest, someone forwarded to me the list of candidates for American Fork City Council. I know three of the nine; one is an incumbent, and two have run unsuccessfully before. I don't yet know the other six. I won't list names here because I won't be commenting on them here; American Fork is simply my example to illustrate a more general discussion. You can see the list at Utah County's official web site. (If you live in a different municipality in Utah County, you may be able to look up your candidates elsewhere at the same site.)
In American Fork we'll have a primary election on Tuesday, September 13, to reduce the field of nine candidates to six (two for each available seat). The top six vote-getters will advance to the general election in November, in which the top three will claim the seats. In each case, voters will be able to vote for three city council candidates.
But I told you that my point is not specific to American Fork. What I have for you today is some thoughts on what I hope to find in at least three candidates on my ballot. I don't yet know which candidates they may be, but in any case I'm seeking more or less what I usually seek in candidates. I fancy that you might be looking for some of the same things in the candidates on your ballots. As a practical matter, I really don't expect to find everything on my wish list in any one candidate, but I hope to find a combination of three candidates who each have some of the things I value, and who together have most or all of them. The election of three such candidates would be a happy outcome.
Here's my list.
Time and Interest
I'm looking for city councilors who have the time and the interest to do more than just attend meetings. Governing wisely requires learning and seeing multiple sides of many issues. It's not enough to judge by the information and opinions people bring to you. Sometimes there's no substitute for putting your own boots on the ground, or for doing your own research. All of that takes time.
There are plenty of people around whose heads are filled with ideals. I'm not opposed to ideals, but I'm looking for city councilors with some real-world expertise -- ideally, some professional-level activity in something or other -- and with some experience inside the city government. We often hear candidates tell us that they're running because they want to serve. It seems reasonable to ask them, If we're to believe that your motive is to serve the city in elected office, why haven't we already seen you serving on the planning commission or the Steel Days Committee or the Beautification Committee, for example? I value this city government experience in my candidates in part because it helps them to have more reasonable expectations of what they can and cannot accomplish in elected office and how long things can take in the real political world.
In the past I've heard candidates criticize other candidates for having an agenda at all, instead of simply wanting to be involved or to serve. To my mind, the critic in this scenario is not qualified for office. I want my candidates to have an agenda, and I want them to be able to criticize their peers not for having an agenda at all, but for having the wrong agenda. When your name is on my ballot, I want to know what you care about enough to run for office. I want to know what you want to accomplish while you're in office. I will judge you by your agenda -- not just whether I agree with it, but, almost more importantly, whether it is realistic. I will ask myself if your agenda suggests a mature, intelligent view of the possibilities and limitations involved in holding local elected office.
Understanding of Local Government and Other Levels of Government
I'm looking for local candidates who understand the various levels of government clearly. One reason for this is practical: I firmly believe in limited government at all levels, because I value my freedom and yours. But limited government has vastly different implications at the local and national levels. For a city councilor to be effective, a clear sense of these differences is almost essential. If the first thing you do as a candidate is hand me a copy of the US Constitution (a document I treasure and often study), you're already halfway toward convincing me that you're so focused on national government that you don't understand local government sufficiently. There's also some risk that I'll decide that you're just trying to push my buttons, when you ought to be impressing me with your deeply held, carefully considered, internally consistent principles and how they apply to local issues. Truly, you'd impress me more, if you're running for local office, by showing some knowledge of the municipal code than by swearing your eternal fealty to the US Constitution, which I already assume we both love.
The second reason I want my candidates to have a clear sense of the various levels of government is that I want them to be able to work effectively with -- and in some cases stand up to or even obstruct -- other government entities. I'd like them to show proper respect for government offices at various levels, and for the people who fill them, without showing undue deference to them.
Skill and Inclination to Communicate
I'm looking for candidates who are inclined to communicate and who are reasonably articulate. I don't mean people who can give a good speech if they have a good speech writer and a teleprompter; that's not necessarily evidence of competence in government -- of which we have daily reminders. I mean people who speak and write well in a variety of situations, including when reporter's phone call interrupts their dinner. Someone who is articulate may not be more intelligent than someone who isn't, but he will be a more effective advocate for his views and for the city's interests. And if he's clear and careful in his writing and speaking during the campaign, he'll be less likely, while in office, to embarrass the city in the press or, for that matter, to get the city sued.
Because All That Wasn't Enough
I'd like candidates who know the whole city -- who, for example, are conscious of the differences between life in the older neighborhoods downtown and life in the newer and more comfortable neighborhoods up the hill.
I'd love to see candidates who understand Utah's grossly misnamed truth-in-taxation law and its certified tax rate. I know full well that I'm setting the bar quite high -- so high that some state legislators could not clear it. In general, I dislike candidates who try to push my buttons, but here I'll make an exception. Any candidate is welcome to push my buttons by demonstrating a firm grasp of how certified tax rates work, and then by talking about how they affect municipalities, and how absurd it is that the law in some cases not only allows but requires local governments to say taxes are increasing when the rates are going down, or decreasing when the rates are going up.
Not on My List
l will soon give you a list of things candidates can do to encourage me to vote for someone else, but I have just two more observations for today.
First -- and I'm repeating myself -- I don't expect to find everything I want in any actual candidate. I'm just looking for the best candidates available, according to my own criteria.
Second, please note that I have said nothing of age, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, or any of the other categories we use to divide ourselves. When I'm deciding for whom to vote, I don't care about any of this. I only care about a candidate's party affiliation -- or, for that matter, sexual orientation -- to the degree that it affects his or her political agenda.
I wish you good luck in choosing your candidates, and I hope for good fortune in choosing mine.
David Rodeback comments (7/25/2011):
For me this American Fork election will be unlike the last three, when I reported in detail on candidate events and offered my own opinions and analysis. A few months after the November 2009 election, I stopped commenting publicly on American Fork city politics. This feels like old news to me, but, because some kind souls have recently expressed disappointment and frustration with that decision, I note that you may find my public, perhaps slightly narcissistic discussion of it in blog posts from February 2010 entitled "An Announcement," "An Exclusive Interview with Myself," "Readers, Rewards, Attachment," and "Don't Blame the Bloggers."
This year I'll be attending the same candidate events and trying to decide who most deserves my vote, but I won't be spending the many hours I spent before, documentation and commenting on it all. I don't know who, if anyone, will take up the cause of discussing publicly and in detail this year's candidates and issues. I wish someone would do it, and do it well, because our local politics still suffer from too little information and too little discussion. No, it's not the city government's fault, or the Daily Herald's.
Copyright 2011 by David Rodeback.