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May 4, 2005

Getting Our Just Desserts and Why

Tony Soltero

I love Cable 10's Pressing Issues. It's so refreshing to see a political discussion show that's made up of real citizens discussing real topics, instead of professionally coiffed spinmeisters showing off their skill in talking-points recitation while avoiding anything resembling substance.

And the show's editorial balance puts the cable news scream fests to shame. So I try to catch it whenever I can. At its best, it's educational and thought-provoking; at its worst, it's still entertaining.

One recent discussion focused on the candidates for Frederick's upcoming city election, with the concentration on the aldermen. One of the panelists bemoaned what he perceived to be a weak field of candidates, and all but implored others to step up and run for office.

His assessment of the candidates' quality might not be accurate - having met a couple of the candidates myself, I personally believe they're fully qualified to be good public servants - but the larger question he raised is well worth examining.

Why are so many of our elections - at the local, state, and national levels - so often choices between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?

The single most prominent answer that comes to mind is that the cost of mounting a campaign - even for a local office - has become prohibitive for the ordinary citizen. So this immediately narrows the field to people who are either already wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns, or hold enough name recognition in the community to effectively raise the requisite funds.

The problem with this is that "wealth" or "name recognition" don't necessarily imply "talent" or "decency," and too often we end up represented with office holders who are as intellectually and/or ethically bankrupt as they are financially enabled.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R., TX) is the most blatant example of this, but closer to home, there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of the Sixth Congressional District's men and women who would make vastly more qualified representatives than the somnambulant Roscoe Bartlett, whom people vote for simply out of habit (obviously). But how will we ever know who they are?

A sidebar to the financial issue is that most people, as bright and talented as they might be, still have to work for a living, and don't have the time to invest in a political campaign. You can't just push your career aside and cast your family to the wind in an effort that may or may not pay off.

Another problem is that political campaigns are almost never about issues anymore - they're nothing but mutual mudslinging-fests, with the emphasis increasingly on the candidates' personal lives. (The code phrase for this is "character issues" - which is really nothing more than an excuse to personalize a political contest when you can't win on real issues.) Mind you, this isn't new (google up the 1950 Pepper-Smathers Florida Senate race if you dare), but it's been getting much worse in recent years.

If running for office implies having every embarrassing moment of one's life put on display for the public, why would one subject oneself and one's family to such an ordeal? Not to mention that it's pretty much standard for candidates' operatives to spread lies and unfounded rumors about their opponents - ask Martin O'Malley what it's like to be on the receiving end of these smears. It does tend to drive many decent people out of the business.

Finally, some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the voting public itself. As long as many of us base our electoral choices on silly, superficial "image" issues, and utter banalities like "I voted for this guy because he's someone who seems fun to have a beer with," we've minimized our chances to get competent government. I can't blame a potentially strong candidate who opts to eschew running for office if the voters' priorities are that discombobulated. As the adage goes, "we get the government we deserve."

So, where does this leave us? Well, our pool of potential office holders winds up being much thinner than it should be. And those who do run tend to become dependent upon their funding sources, leading to a chain reaction of potential and actual conflicts of interest. If developer money put you in office, developer interests are the ones you'll serve, the public be damned.

We're also treated to the spectacle of having local office holders financed by out-of-state interests. Consider those Alex Mooney bumper stickers on Virginia-plated cars. I don't know about you, but I resent someone from outside my jurisdiction influencing my local election like that.

What can we do, then? How do we get quality people to run for office?

Well, we need to start with ourselves, the voters. We need to educate ourselves more on actual ISSUES and stop falling for those "character" smoke screens thrown up by political operatives. We need to consider candidates for their intelligence, their ideas, and their platforms, and not worry about what DVDs they rented out two years ago or what they might have done at high-school parties (unless, of course, they explicitly make these things an issue - a candidate who makes "fighting porn" a plank of his platform opens himself up for public scrutiny in that field).

We need to pursue meaningful campaign finance reform, the type that opens up the pool of potential office holders, and dilutes the influence of moneyed out-of-state interests. I believe Marylanders should be the ones financing Maryland political candidates. Don't you?

We need to recognize that if a candidate mounts an ad hominem attack on his opponent, focusing on the person and not on the issues, it's a pretty good indication that he doesn't have any real ideas.

If we do these things, we'll improve our government enormously. And the Pressing Issues panelists will happily move on to the next item.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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