David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
If You Want My Vote (Part IV)

Principles seven and eight for candidates who want my vote.

This is the fourth in a nearly-complete series of posts in which I venture to provide some remedial instruction for local candidates and prospective candidates. The first, second, and third installments articulated these principles (two each):

1. Local means local.
2. Show up -- in advance.
3. Get your facts straight.
4. Check your conspiracy theories at the door.
5. Know your sunshine laws.
6. Don't just hint darkly at special interests; name names.

Today I add these two:

7. If you don't have a personal agenda, why are you running?
8. Politics is a contact sport.

If I had to guess, I suspect I'll get to ten principles before I run out. Whatever the final number, perhaps I'm too demanding, where local -- especially small-city -- politics is concerned. But what I really think is, if you find my criteria too stern, you probably shouldn't ask me to grant you political power.

7. If You Don't Have a Personal Agenda, Why Are You Running?

As a voter, I actually want to know what you think is important, and what you will try to accomplish, if you're elected to office. In practice, I'll probably end up voting for you without liking your entire agenda, or voting against you without disliking your entire agenda. Otherwise, I'd never vote.

Issues matter to me, but I won't be simply scoring you and your opponent according to a checklist of my own positions on various issues. I'll be evaluating your personality, your temperament, your intellect, your work ethic, and your philosophy of local government. It's my job as a voter, as I see it, and this business of your having a personal agenda or not potentially implicates all five of those evaluation criteria. 

If you're the sort of candidate who likes to boast that he has no personal agenda and no "pet issues" -- something we hear occasionally in our politics -- then I'll either believe or disbelieve you. Either of these outcomes is bad for you.

If I believe you, then I'll wonder why you bothered to run, because you're obviously not energized by specific issues. I will have no idea where you'll come down on the things that matter to me. Moreover, I won't be able to judge how soundly you will reason your way through new issues and new complexities in old issues, if I'm unable to discern your reasoning on any issues at all.

If I disbelieve you, then I'll think you're duplicitous and cynical.

So I don't ever really have to decide whether I believe you or not on this point. Either way, if you claim to have no agenda, I'll be voting for someone else.

Of course, having no personal agenda may not mean that there's nothing you want to accomplish. Unless you're one of those politically hollow candidates who have no opinions, but like to help make decisions for everybody -- they do exist -- you may really mean is that your motive is to govern for the good of all the people, not just yourself and your friends. So you're really using the "personal agenda" line as an excuse for not explaining the principles you embrace which will allow you to do that. Or it's a gentler way to accuse your opponent of being a puppet of "special interests."

Either way, I'll still be voting for someone else, because now you're either lazy and don't do your homework, or you're a manipulator and a coward and have violated my Principle 6 by whining about special interests without being man or woman enough to name names and present evidence.

8. Politics Is a Contact Sport

(For the benefit of my readers who are Grammarian-Americans -- try saying that quickly ten times in a row -- I note that my excellent dictionary approves treating politics as a singular noun for purpose of verb agreement. But this principle isn't about grammar. It's not about basketball, either, but that's where we'll start.)

Basketball is a contact sport, too, if you play it seriously. I played for a small Idaho high school in a league of small Idaho high schools. I wasn't gifted or even very good, but I worked hard and tried to understand the game. At 6'2" I was a little too short to play center even in our league, but I could jump back then, and I wasn't quick enough to play guard, and no one else was much taller, so center is what I played. This means that I spent most of my time "inside" or "in the middle," that is, relatively near the basket.

I learned how to play with a lot of contact inside -- none of it dirty -- from a coach much shorter than I was. He could play about eight inches taller and a foot wider than he really was, because he knew how to play with and exploit contact without getting whistled for fouls. He didn't throw elbows, hold, or push people out of the way, but he could be as immovable as a boulder, when it suited him, and he was very good at getting in the way, so that his opponent either couldn't move through the key at will or fouled him in the attempt.

I must have learned reasonably well from him, because I never fouled out of a game, even though it was common for me, in my last year, to play as many as 30 or 31 minutes of a 32-minute game. And if the other team had a particularly effective inside man, I tended to draw the assignment to guard him one-on-one, while my teammates played a four-man zone.

We were playing just such a "box and one" defense one evening, with me as the "one," and I was having a very good game defensively. Well into the third quarter, we had a small lead. The opponent's leading scorer -- playing on his home floor, in front of his home crowd and, I like to think, his girlfriend -- had about four points, a basket off a rebound and a pair of free throws. He was frustrated, and I felt so responsible. If I played behind him, I beat him to the place where he wanted to cut through the key. If I played in front of him, with my back to him, I kept contact with my hip, so he couldn't get around me and couldn't fade backward without my knowing it. I could jump well enough to intercept or at least deflect the lob passes they tried to throw over me.

I "fronted" him with particular success on two or three possessions in a row that quarter, and I could feel him getting rougher in response. He was losing his temper. I had already heard him complain first to his teammates, then to his coach, then to the officials, that I was fouling him repeatedly every time down the floor. I was playing dirty, he complained; why weren't they calling fouls on me? It merely upset him further when they called a couple of offensive fouls on him for pushing.

Finally, he tried to throw me out of the way, and, when that didn't work, he threw a punch at me, right in front of two officials. The punch landed, and the gentlemen in the striped shirts blew their whistles. That night, I won my matchup, my team won the game rather handily, and the other team's star player finished the game a little early and at least 15 points below his scoring average.

You may wonder why I belabor a small athletic triumph from of my distant past. It's not to entertain long-time reader, fellow blogger, and incumbent American Fork city councilor Shirl LeBaron, who loves sports and once even gave me some BYU football tickets he couldn't use. It's because there are sourpusses who like to watch or even play basketball, who are persuaded that any contact is a foul, and any intentional contact is dirty.

Actually, it's really because there are candidates who think precisely the same way about politics: any contact is a foul. These people are at the mercy of more mature politicians, who know that contact is part of the game and are adept at absorbing it and using it to their advantage, without playing dirty.

Contrary to such folks' opinion, it is not dirty campaigning to criticize an opponent's voting record, publicly stated positions, or unwillingness to take a position on an important issue. If you whine when your opponent does that, or if you respond with genuine dirty campaigning of your own -- the metaphorical equivalent of my frustrated opponent throwing a punch -- I can't toss you out of the game, but you've gone a long way toward losing my vote.

Inevitably, when your opponent uses your own words or record against you, you feel that he or she is not evaluating or reporting it fairly. So, if you are a sensible and skillful politician, you calmly clarify, explain, correct (preferably with evidence), restate, elucidate, debunk -- pick your rational, mature verb -- rather than accusing him or her of playing dirty. Do that, and you get my attention in a way that could win my vote, in part because you demonstrate a stable temperament that looks as if it might suit you for office.

It is dirty campaigning knowingly to misquote, misrepresent, twist, distort, or obfuscate your opponent's record or words -- or, for that matter, your own. It is dirty campaigning to insinuate (even without openly stating) things that are false, or to ask slimy questions which you know many voters will take as answers, when the opponent has no time or opportunity for defense against your sleaze. The "October surprise" (of which more in the next installment) is dirty campaigning; in September or August, assuming you have facts and evidence on your side, the same revelation may not be dirty.

Actual dirty campaigning is a deal-breaker with me, and I think I'm not the only voter out there who will hold it against you on this Election Day and your next.

Dirty campaigning occurs in American Fork from time to time, though there is less of it here than there is of candidates whining about dirty campaigning. Either way, I wish it were true that local elections always turned out as well as that basketball game, with the whiner or punch-thrower losing to the clean but physical opponent. Alas, dirty campaigning sometimes turns elections, including American Fork elections, in the mudslinger's favor. If I could change that, I would. (Maybe I'm trying to change it here.)

Maybe it's just me, but dirty campaigning makes no sense, if your goal is to govern. Serving for four years in local elective office is hard enough and will create plenty of opponents and even some enemies, even if you govern consummately well. So, if you're serious about governing, why would you want to begin your term with the handicap of a large minority of voters who turn up their noses at the very thought of you?

It's not just running for office that requires you to be able to receive and administer controlled contact without losing your cool or whining to the refs. Governing requires that, too -- which is just one of several reasons why the campaign process helps observant voters choose candidates who are fit to govern.

Stay tuned for two more principles, coming soon.

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