Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A rush from judgment: Why people don’t run for public office

Author's Note: The following is the unabridged text of the column that appeared in the Sept. 28 edition of the Dallas Morning News' Community Opinion page:
We live in a nation that strives, at times, to have a true “citizen’s democracy,” in which ordinary people are placed in charge of the various levels of government instead of the seemingly privileged few. It’s a noble concept, but lacks in one overriding ingredient – the willingness of those average citizens to step forward and serve.
For the most part, they simply do not want that light upon them. When voters examine the ballot on Nov. 4, many of the races will be unchallenged – the very antithesis of a democracy when one essentially has no choice about who governs.
Some will say money (or the lack of it) is the main reason for non-involvement and others will point to one-party strangleholds at many levels … in areas such as this. These are all valid arguments but miss the real reason most people fail to sing on that dotted line for political office – at ANY level; it’s far more personal than that.
Simply put, most men and women do not want to be judged by strangers; afraid such verdicts will always be negative. Placing your name on a ballot, asking others to go thumbs “up or down” on your worthiness for any office, cuts to one’s core as deep as any surgeon’s scalpel. Rather than face such judgment, they avoid it – at all costs.
It requires a special brand of moxie to seek election; call it ego or by another name, without it, you don’t success or even try. Successful “politicians” allow that attitude to be fed by the public’s reaction to them; the ones who win the most just don’t take it personally.
It’s the hardest lesson of all to learn, and the most personal choice ever made; to put oneself forward in deciding about people’s future (family, homes, community, the nation itself). When Barack Obama told the Denver convention audience, “This election isn’t about me,” it was his way of detaching the judgment from the effort. When people finally get to mark that ballot, it obviously will be about him and his opponent – anyway you slice it.
If you run for office, the following could happen to you. While living in a small, rural South Texas town, I ran for the local school board of a consolidated (dual community) district. In one area, I held my own against my opponent. But in her hometown, I got swamped 84-1 … and lost the election.
I didn’t mind losing, but it became a burr in my saddle to discover that single individual brave enough to support me against that electoral tidal wave. I never knew the identity of such a lone wolf; would have bought him or her a thick steak dinner simply to say “thanks.”
The following year, after editorializing against a city council incumbent for not paying back taxes yet voting to make others do the same, I ran to unseat him … and won. For the next two years, I was in the middle of the lion’s den, often without Daniel’s technicolor coat to protect me. However, confident of doing a decent job, I sought a second term.
Election Day coincided with a press convention in Laredo, so I left town two days prior to the vote, knowing three men (including my name) were vying for two seats. When I returned home 24 hours after actual balloting, I learned of my fourth-place finish in a three-man race. It seems while I was gone, someone (actually named Bubba) decided to conduct an impromptu, ad hoc write-in campaign (mostly by phone), and darn if he didn’t finish third. I was dead last.
Should I have cried or gotten angry at such an outcome? No, I actually laughed; it was pretty comical – fourth in a field of three. I was freed from harassing phone calls at night about someone’s dog or loose trash or broken water lines or missing girlfriend. I no longer had to fire friends who broke city policy or decide how much of other people’s money to spend annually. Serving is often just as hard as campaigning.
For most citizens, it’s a daunting responsibility and, at times, burdensome pressure. Those people tend to spend their entire existence avoiding such judgments, and, hence, should never be asked to run for any office. They wouldn’t be able to handle it.
But when you cull the herd, there’s not many left to do the important job of governing. It’s why incumbents last forever and fresh faces are hard to find.

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