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Thursday, July 7, 2011
A Crucial Phase

Election days are important in our democratic republic, and so are the campaigns which precede them. But one of the most crucial phases in our self-government comes much earlier. It ends with the filing period, but it begins long before. Listen to an audio podcast of this post.

Below the Radar

Who hasn't voted at least once for an inferior mayor or congressman or someone else, simply because the only opponent was much worse? If good, sensible people are not on the ballot, we cannot elect them. (Successful write-in candidacies are very difficult and, consequently, quite rare.)

In presidential campaigns, the drama of prospective candidates deciding whether or not to run is relentlessly publicized. We sometimes see this in other high-profile races, too. Last spring at convention, my fellow Republican delegates and I defeated former US Senator Robert Bennett, along with a well-known radical and a few minor candidates. Since that very day, months before the 2010 primary and general elections, there's been great interest in some circles in finding candidates to oppose Utah's senior US Senator, Orrin Hatch, in 2012.

I'll have more to say about next year's races eventually, but today let's turn to this year's local races, where this critical phase is in progress right now, below the radar. I'll use American Fork, Utah, as my example. It's where I live, so I have a particular interest in the quality of its government.

The timing varies from place to place, but in local races in Utah the filing period for candidates in this year's elections opened July 1 and will close July 15. After 5 p.m. next Friday, we won't know who will win this year's primary and general elections, but we'll know who will not be on the ballot.

In American Fork, three of five city councilors' terms expire at the end of this year. One councilman, Rick Storrs, is reportedly running for reelection. His colleagues Shirl LeBaron and Sherry Kramer have announced that they're not running, and Kramer says she's resigning in August. This means that a replacement will be named to serve the rest of her term (through the end of the year), and the seat will be filled for the next term by election as usual. In January, therefore, there will be at least two new faces on the American Fork City Council.

Two things are happening in private, in American Fork and elsewhere. First, prospective candidates are deciding whether they want to be actual candidates. Second, others who are conscious of having interests at stake -- perhaps a general interest in good government, perhaps something more specific -- are considering whom they would like to see on the ballot, and trying to persuade those individuals to run.

Do you mind if I say it again? If we want to elect good people, they have to be on the ballot. In Utah the deadline for that is only eight days hence.

Serious People Ask Serious Questions

Over the years, I've tried to recruit good candidates, and I've advised some prospective candidates. Some ran and won. Some ran and lost. Some didn't run at all. None of them was motivated primarily by personal ambition or ego, and none of them decided to run or not to run without serious reflection.

One prospective candidate wrestled at length with the decision, then decided not to run, and in relief took the family out to dinner to celebrate that decision. Several days later, this person decided to run after all, filed as a candidate mere minutes before the deadline, and then took the family to the same restaurant to celebrate the new decision. This is amusing, perhaps, but it is not frivolous indecision. Serious, acccomplished people -- the sort I want in my government -- have much to consider, when deciding to run for office or not. The campaign itself is hard work, a major commitment, and winning leads to a four-year commitment beyond that.

Somewhere out there, some potential candidates are asking themselves a lot of questions, including these:

  • Do I have the physical, mental, intellectual, and professional capacity to serve in public office for four years?
  • Can I win? If I don't, can I be content to have affected the debate, or to look forward to the next election year?
  • Can I fund a campaign myself, or do I have the will to approach friends, family, and others for contributions?
  • Do I care enough about at least some of the issues I will face to justify the time and effort of campaigning, and then of serving, if I win?
  • Am I willing to disagree publicly with my opponents?
  • Do I really think I'll do a better job than my opponents?
  • Can I bear the thought of making some public mistakes during my public service?
  • Am I comfortable deciding issues even when there are good people and good arguments on each side?
  • Do I have a thick enough skin to make very public decisions, for the long-term good of the whole city, which may displease my friends and neighbors?
  • Can I absorb both defeat and victory gracefully, both in the election and in office, if I win?
  • Do I care enough about my issues or good government generally to justify the risk that opponents may smear me with falsehoods and distortions? Is there anything true in my past or present which opponents could legitimately use to discredit me?

One's Crucial, One's Common

Here is a crucial question: Do I have my spouse's and my family's support and enthusiasm? I have agreed when prospective candidates have told me that this one is a deal-breaker.

It might surprise you, but a common question among potential challengers and incumbents is, Are there enough other solid candidates already in the race, or will my deciding not to run effectively elevate an ideologue, dilettante, or wing nut to office by default?

More Serious Questions

Here are more questions which may occur to any potential candidate, but especially an incumbent:

  • Am I willing to endure four years of being called a corrupt weasel, just because I happen to hold elected office?
  • Can I be philosophical about the occasional angry letters, anonymous and otherwise, from people who think anyone who disagrees with them either is or serves Satan?
  • Can I happily work hard for four years, studying all sides of issue after issue, while many others refuse to see any side but their own?
  • Am I willing to put myself in front of the public to the extent that anything I say or write may be on the record? Am I willing to be misconstrued and misquoted, perhaps even unjustly attacked, in the new media and the old?
  • Am I content to plan family vacations and other events around important votes, season after season, year after year?

That's a lot of questions, I know. The list would be much shorter for prospective candidates whose ambition dwarfed their powers of reflection. But we're not talking about those candidates today.

What to Do, What to Do

On Monday we celebrated our Independence Day. Independence only works if we can govern ourselves. Self-government only works if we can find good, sensible, hard-working people; get them on the ballot; vote for them; and support them as they serve.

Do you want to strike a blow for good government this week? Think of the best people you know who might run for a local government office near you. Tell them why you think they're the best. Promise your support if they run. Then stand by them if they do. It isn't quite too late to do this for the 2011 elections in Utah. In any case, do this year after year, and you won't always succeed, but fewer of your trips to the ballot box will be frustrating. You know the trips I mean: the ones when you know there are serious issues at stake, but you, as the voter, have to choose between Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, and Anthony Weiner, because no one better ran.

A final thought: I realize that I have done something bizarre and incredible here. Popular stereotypes to the contrary notwithstanding, I have suggested that a political candidate or incumbent might be governed by something more honorable than personal ambition. In truth, this is often the case. There are some good people in politics. There would be more good people in politics if we'd work to recruit and elect them, avoid abusing them after we elect them, and generally act like we deserve them. But I suppose that is a soap box for another day.

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