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Saturday, October 19, 2013
Meet the American Fork Candidates, Round One: Analysis and Commentary

Having reported last time, as evenly as I can, on Thursday's meet-the-candidates event, I now turn to my own thoughts. (Part 1 of 2.)

Last time I summarized what the candidates said at Thursday evening's meet-the-candidates event in American Fork. There are links to audio there too.

Here -- in this post and the next, which I'm posting simultaneously -- I'll tell you what I think. We'll start with some happy stuff about the whole group. As we move on from that, bear in mind that thoughtful rebuttal is always welcome here and will be posted, assuming it's readable, civilized, etc.

The cast of characters includes Mayor James (J. H.) Hadfield, a one-term incumbent, and Bill Thresher, his challenger. Only three candidates remain for two city council seats, Glen Anderson having dropped out after the primary. They are incumbent Craig Nielsen and challengers Carlton Bowen and Jeffrey Shorter.

Cause for Praise (And I'm Not Just Being Kind)

Here is a blessing we ought to notice and appreciate, because it doesn't come every election day: As far as I can tell, all five candidates whose names will appear on my American Fork ballot in November are good, decent men who want to serve their community. They have enjoyed some success in their professional lives, and they have shown themselves willing to take the public beatings we administer to candidates for elective office, to say nothing of the slings and arrows they'll attract if they win -- and three of them will win. I am not aware that any of them wants to use City office as a stepping stone for higher office, which is sometimes a bad thing. I don't know anything to impeach any of them personally, even though one of them used to call me Bishop, and vice versa. All of them seem likable enough.

Here's another happy thing, if you don't mind my seeing with my campaign manager's eye for a moment. (By the way, I'm not managing any of these campaigns.) Thursday evening, four of the five candidates were fielding questions in the first meet-the-candidates event of their first political campaign. Even incumbent Councilman Craig Nielsen is in his first campaign, having been appointed to fill the last year of Dale Gunther's unfinished term on the council. A sufficient volume of rookie mistakes can take over such events in about three different unpleasant ways, but these rookies avoided some (not all) of the common missteps, so we never reached a critical mass. I was also pleased that no one ventured out on the familiar but ridiculous "special interests" limb, darkly averring that someone is taking something from someone to do something, but never saying what or from whom.

Please don't forget these positive things, as you read on. They will help you to appreciate that the mistakes I will identify are typical of good men, not bad men.

I'm about to criticize some of them for an offense I doubt they know they are committing. As part of that, I'm about to say they're getting some of the facts wrong, but I don't think they realize they're doing that, either. I'm certainly not accusing them of lying; I'm saying they are mistaken. The moral difference is vast indeed, but I have to mention it, because it isn't obvious to everyone.

Finally, if I assert that someone isn't quite ready for the office he seeks, I'm not saying he will never be good at it, if he wins, or that he won't try hard, or that he cannot get ready before running again, if he loses this time.

The Incumbents

I don't prefer incumbents by default, but I don't think incumbency is synonymous with evil, either. For example, in 2010 I reluctantly helped retire Senator Robert Bennett, whom I liked in most ways. In 2012 I was pleased to help elect Senator Orrin Hatch to his seventh term.

That said, on Thursday evening there was an wide gulf between the incumbents and the challengers. It was not just a matter of the incumbent's usual advantage over the challenger in facts and operational details. I'm able and quite willing to allow for that, as I have often done before.

The incumbents, Mayor Hadfield and Councilman Nielsen, had their facts straight, connected them well, and kept their cool while the challengers earnestly slaughtered both facts and logic. Because these two knew what they were talking about, there's not a lot for me to say about what they said, except to refer you to what they said (in yesterday's summary or the audio files linked there).

The challengers' contribution to the evening is my focus for the rest of this post. It will take a while. As you've noticed, a single misguided phrase or sentence can take a lot more words to explain and correct.

In any case, it is safe to say that what I heard from the challengers disappoints me more than it otherwise would have, because there aren't enough solid incumbents to go around.

Not Just Me

I'm not the only one thinking such thoughts. After Thursday evening's event, a friend from across town, who attends a lot of these things and generally pays attention to what goes on at the City, came to me and asked, "How many council seats are open?"

I replied, "Two."

He said, "I thought so. That's bad."

I said, "Yep."

Others present expressed similar frustration -- but, in fairness to them, I must declare that the explanations which follow are my own.

The Unbearable Lightness of Running

My dissatisfaction with these challengers I can explain in relatively few words: I don't think they're taking the voters, the job, or the process seriously enough. By this I mean three overlapping things, which apply to all three challengers in slightly different degrees.

First,  I don't think they've been paying attention to the City closely enough and for enough years to understand the issues they're talking about.

Second, I don't think they've done their homework. The well-prepared candidate has already devoted serious, concerted effort to learning what's going on in the various departments of the City (which some excellent first-time candidates have undertaken in the past, before asking for votes). This is necessary in itself but can also make up for some past inattention. Either these challengers still aren't doing much of this, or they're coming quite late to it, with unfortunate effects.

Third, they're not connecting the dots. They're not studying and pondering the connections between various issues and challenges. I admit, this is hard to do without having paid attention and having done one's homework. But in any case they keep criticizing things that make a lot of sense, when you understand the reasons, the history, the constraints, and the alternatives. And they keep tossing off solutions which don't make sense, if you try to connect them to reality.

I'm not saying they're bad men, and I'm not saying they're stupid. I'm not even saying they're lazy or presumptuous. I'm saying they're good men who don't yet know what they don't know, because they haven't taking running for office seriously enough.

If someone came to me, as several have, and said she was interested in running for city council someday, I'd say, start paying attention now. Attend meetings. Read documents. Ask lots of people lots of questions (at the City and elsewhere). Listen carefully and take notes. Pick a City committee which interests you and get to work on it. In a few years, if you still want to run, you'll be ready.

Or you could run now. You probably won't have my vote, but you might get lucky and win enough votes. And a year or two into your first term, you might be prepared to do a good job. It will be a rough enough ride if you are prepared from the beginning. It will be a lot rougher if you're not.

Entry Level?

I deduce from the three problems I've described -- inattention, lack of homework, and failure to connect the dots -- that these challengers think of the offices they seek as entry-level positions. I have a problem with that.

Allow me to illustrate with Mr. Thresher. He touts his business education and experience, calls himself "extremely successful" in business, and says he wants to bring his business acumen (my word) to the City. I believe him on all these counts, though I suspect "extremely" to be a trifle overstated. 

Let's stick to business terminology for a moment, shall we? We voters are interviewing candidates to be the chief executive officer of a business with over 100 employees, widely diverse departments, and an annual budget in excess of $50 million. It is a highly visible role and occasionally attracts opposition, controversy, and litigation. (If it's done poorly, it does so more than occasionally.) This business is connected to almost every facet of our essential infrastructure, not to mention our health and physical safety.

Which part of Mr. Thresher's business experience makes him think we voters should be interested in hiring someone who has never worked in this organization or even volunteered in it, who lacks detailed awareness of its institutional history, and who has never led or even worked for a similar organization anywhere in the world? What aspect of his business insight suggests that we voters should treat the highest position in the executive branch of municipal government as entry-level? Why would we prefer him to the other candidate, who has more than two decades' experience in the organization, including executive-level leadership, and who has professional-level expertise and near-encyclopedic knowledge in the area of greatest present concern, infrastructure?

A similar argument can be made with respect to the challengers in the city council race, Messrs. Bowen and Shorter. We're electing senior-level officials of that same organization who will actually make our laws, approve that large budget, and represent almost 30,000 residents. Is there something about this description that suggests it is an entry-level position?

The city council has been a difficult enough entry point for the incumbent candidate, Craig Nielsen, and he's four kinds of an exceptional case. He is unusually intelligent. He is unusually meticulous in accumulating facts and analyzing their connections. He is uncommonly circumspect, in that he tends to wait to speak until he knows what he's talking about. And he respects the learning curve. He still respects the learning curve, after serving on the council for a year with four excellent peers, who themselves brought extensive City experience to their offices, and with a mayor who knows almost everything there is to know about the city, both above and below ground. Nielsen knows that most of the learning curve still lies ahead, and he approaches it and the people who are ahead of him on it with modesty and respect.

Given that at least one of the challengers must win in November, it is of some small comfort to me that at least two of them have lately demonstrated the ability to detect the learning curve, but they haven't come close to measuring it yet, and Thursday evening provided ample evidence that they don't respect it yet.

To Be Continued (Immediately)

I'm making an editorial decision to split one very long post into two long posts. Now that I've explained the charges, the next post will present a good sampling of the evidence. I'll see you there.

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