Saturday, December 11, 2004

Serving Two Masters

We make it hard to be a politician. I don’t know if it is harder now than it used to be, but I know it is hard. While we all love the stereotypic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” ideal of the common man taking on the system and winning, we aren’t always willing to put the sweat equity into seeing it happen. Even so, just having the goodwill and support of constituents isn’t enough. Candidates seem to need to goodwill and support of party bosses and power brokers as well. They have to hire the right consultants and use the right printing businesses and have the right media experts and the right professional fundraisers. To pay for all that you have to tap into the deep pocket donors and special interests. And therein lies the split. Appeasing both the voters and the big guns is a very delicate dance, since their priorities may not overlap much.

The prevailing thought seems to be that if you shove enough mailers, automated phone messages, and radio and tv ads down the voters’ throats you can get anyone elected. Unfortunately there is some research supporting this theory. Making sure the information you present is correct and verifiable seems to be a secondary, and sometimes conflicting, concern. After all, as Congressman-elect Mike Fitzpatrick so clearly demonstrated, you can always apologize for mean-spirited campaign literature afterwards and say you tried to stop those nasty party bosses from sending it out but they just wouldn’t listen. I don’t mean to pick on him; he’s by no means the only one to use this strategy, just the one that comes to mind the quickest. (True Confessions: I’ve used the “its better to ask for forgiveness than permission” strategy myself a time or two.)

It’s easy to judge all elected officials by the actions of a few. I wonder how many of the local people who donated money to Congressman Jim Greenwood or Representative Kelly Lewis are going to be so eager to donate again. Greenwood dropped out of the race to take a job for an industry association. Lewis resigned about a month after the election for similar reasons. Both acknowledge that they were discussing and considering offers during the campaign. Weren’t they at least a little obligated to let people know? Campaign and political workers know their paychecks depend on the election results but you sort of assume the candidate who is asking you to work long hours for little money isn’t going to leave you in the lurch.

For surely you know that campaigns and political staff are poorly paid. Yes, there was that report that some staffers make more than their bosses but those are few and far between. Most state house campaigns and non-incumbent federal campaigns are run by people who earn little or no money. Consultants may earn big bucks but the people who implement their ideas aren’t. Some time ago I volunteered on a primary campaign and one of my jobs was to write the checks. I know what the consultants and the politically connected businesses were paid (a lot). I know what the woman who called people and asked for money was paid (zippo). I know what I was paid (zilch). I know what the woman who took the checks and cash to the bank and deposited them was paid (nada). I talked with people who worked on other campaigns and in political offices and I have some idea what they were paid (not much, if anything). I look at the campaign finance reports of other candidates and see that they are much the same. I see the glossy ads for political consulting firms and their press releases announcing how many of their clients won. Two that come to mind have odd names that I can only remember as Breakingup Rocks and Chrysler JuJubee (my favorite movie treat). No doubt the consultants are trained, educated professionals who know their stuff and certainly have no lack of clients. A local organization I volunteer with was approached by one such firm They were was representing a related federal organization, and wanted our support on something; I was impressed that they could find us. No doubt the volunteers and near-volunteers on the same campaigns work just as hard and have a lot more riding on the election results. If the candidate turns out to be a clinker it’s of no consequence to the consultants; a win is a win. I looked at the web sites of three consulting firms and could find nowhere any mention that the firm was interested in being hired by good, let alone competent, honest or trustworthy candidates. The local people, though, can be held responsible by their neighbors for years if the candidate turns out to be a dud.

We make it hard to be a politician. We’ve allowed a professional political industry to develop and, by and large, to accept what they offer us without much complaint. We’ve allowed party bosses and other power brokers to dictate district boundaries, election timings, and candidates. We’ve made it acceptable for local grassroots support to be made secondary. We need to re-establish control and stop asking candidates to serve two masters.

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