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May 11, 2009

Electoral Expectations

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

A recent set of news articles out of Anne Arundel County raise the issue of voter expectations for elected officials.


Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold is under the spotlight, maybe many spotlights. Elected county executive in 2006, Mr. Leopold was well known in AA County political circles. He had served as a Republican member of the House of Delegates for 20 years.


With a reputation as a tireless campaigner and with great attention paid to constituent service work, John was easily able to translate his reputation to voter support in the county election.


In January, a shopper at Westfields Mall in Annapolis called the police to report sexual activity involving two people in the back of a black sedan. When the officer arrived on the scene, he found the official car of the county executive, with Mr. Leopold sitting in the back seat.


The officer’s report mentioned that Mr. Leopold was alone, and appeared to be working on some paperwork. No one else was in the area.


The County Council demanded answers and wanted a full investigation. The chief of the police department was summoned to the Council chambers, but he simply responded with the findings of the officer. The caller who made the initial allegation has not surfaced.


More recently, charges of unwanted inappropriate advances have been leveled against Mr. Leopold. Not just one, but at least two separate allegations. One from a member of his public relations staff and another from a state employee assigned to work in the county headquarters building.


In his own defense, Executive Leopold argues that this attention is all politically motivated, that he has never treated a subordinate inappropriately.


Since these are allegations, even the normally quick-to-destroy political enemies of Mr. Leopold are hesitant to come right out and attack him. Instead, they do the next best thing; they hint that voters will retaliate in the next election.


Sure, blame the voters! It’s much easier than coming right out and confronting the individual. There are any number of ways to do this. You can use the subtle hint that voters avoid controversial figures. You could even suggest that any allegation, even the unproven variety, might be too much for a voter to stomach. If those don’t work, you could posit that a primary and general election challenge could result from character questions.


I guess there’s nothing like the perception of a weakened incumbent to get the juices flowing!


We have our own version of this right here in Frederick County. Public servants are rightfully exposed to careful scrutiny for their actions and decisions, even though the only thing that truly separates them from their neighbors was the vote tally in the last election.


They have the same flaws, quirks, and behavioral issues that everyone else has. Financial challenges, relationship difficulties, and interpersonal communication problems are as familiar to those in elected offices as they are to each of you. The difference is that your own life obstacles won’t make it onto the local page of the daily newspaper.


Don’t construe this as a complaint or excuse-making. It isn’t. This is merely a statement of the obvious, setting up a premise for your consideration.


Should the life of a public servant be judged on the basis of an incident, an outburst, or a weak moment? I suppose it depends on the particulars of the incident, but the question remains.


Would we want our overall value to be judged on the dumbest thing we’ve ever done? Is there a legitimate reason to hold an elected official accountable for a bad decision when the collective body of their work in office is judged as valuable and important?


Each of us has to answer this question to our own satisfaction.


Looking at my colleagues who serve in public office, and who are likely to seek your vote in the next electoral cycle, there a several who have stumbled in their personal lives. Following my premise, at least one of them has distinguished themselves as an important policymaker and leader.


So, if we accept the premise that isolated, and non-criminal, behaviors are not necessarily a valid basis to end a bright public servant’s career, then what might be a better basis upon which to judge how to allocate our precious vote?


After thinking about this since my first election, an unsuccessful run for county commissioner in 1998, I’ve decided that from now on, I have a simple process for deciding which aspiring politicians deserve my vote.


Here are the rules I use:


1.)     Does the person possess a flexible intellect? Can they grasp complex ideas; communicate their position to me in a few simple words or phrases; and do they exhibit a logical thought process?


2.)     Are they so ideologically inclined that they appear unable to even listen to a differing opinion? In the next statewide election, we’ll see a number of candidates who base their decision to run on how closely they heel to the national platform of their political party. Ignore these folks; they’re patently unworthy of your vote. First, they’ll accomplish nothing worthwhile on your behalf. They’ll be so busy fighting that they will miss every valuable opportunity to serve you.


3.)     Do they truly represent the values and positions that really matter to you or your family? If you, as a voter, use the logic that you only vote a straight ticket, then you will get exactly the government you deserve! Ask yourself this question: If I always only vote for Democratic or Republican candidates, how’s that been working for me?


If you feel that a candidate for public office should be a perfect person who is free from flaws in order to get your vote, then I wish you luck with your search. Suffice it to say that your ballot may be a little light.


Instead of shunning public servants who, other than minor flaws and personal decisions, seem to meet the criteria above, I will be taking a long second look at the other candidates who raise those same flaws as the principal reasons to reject their opponents.


I’m not looking for perfect, I’m looking for effective.


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