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June 22, 2009

Political Gut Checks

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

As my time in the political spotlight continues to wind down, I seem to be increasingly reflective. Not just about my own experience, but about politics and politicians in general.


It is truly an odd combination of ego, skill, passion, and perseverance that motivates someone to place their name on a ballot. The act of registering to run for office itself is odd; you spend your own money to get on a ballot and open yourself up to an unprecedented level of personal scrutiny.


Running underneath this act of self-exposure, but never far from one's mind, is the idea that you could be facing rejection on a massive scale. Not the best scenario for someone who craves attention and acceptance!


The people I know in this game all came to the decision to run for office based on one (or more) of the following:


A desire to solve a specific problem that required inside access to the halls of power; or


A passion for a cause or special interest (typically public education, transportation, or taxes); or


A family history of public service (the Kennedy/Bush model); or


An abundance (often unjustified) of self-appreciation and confidence.


Once elected, those motivations often morph into different interests and focus. In rare cases, a candidate serves their time in elected office saying and doing the same things they said on the campaign trail.


Case in point: County Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson, a study in political consistency. From his first candidate pronouncement, through his three terms on the Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner Thompson has done exactly what he promised he would do; no deviation, and no exceptions.


Not intended as a value judgment on the quality of his service generally, this statement is a mere acknowledgment of why he has strong base voter appeal.


The reality for most elected officials is very different than the Thompson model, though. A more realistic view is evident when the issues become intensely controversial and fraught with electoral risk.


Take the recent brouhaha with the Frederick County Board of Education over the diving program and redistricting.


When faced with a very tight budget, the school board opted to cut out the diving program. Citing a limited application of the program (few schools have the necessary infrastructure) and the fact that Maryland secondary schools have no statewide tournament for diving, the board voted to spare the expense of diving board upgrades. Cutting the diving program altogether was the easiest way to make that happen.


Parents of students in the diving program (not to mention the young divers themselves) rallied into action. They found sympathetic ears in local radio personalities Bob Miller and Blaine Young. Bob used his morning drive time on Clear Channel's WFMD (AM 930) to give voice to those parents and students. Blaine used his afternoon show on the same channel to hold a car wash fundraiser to come up with the needed diving dough.


In the face of this coordinated assault, the school board and its staff "found" the money in their budget to replace $20,000 worth of defective diving boards and the turmoil was resolved. Why wasn't that effort expended before the initial decision, and before school board members gave lengthy, albeit ultimately unnecessary, justifications for eliminating the program?


During a Board of Education meeting, following a staff presentation on redistricting and alternatives discussion, board members voted to proceed with a specific alternative. Citing the numbers, board member Angie Fish offered a motion to support one particular option. This option appeared to combine previous alternatives into a "new" idea, one that probably didn't get broad exposure within the affected communities.


That last minute option, once approved, turned a large group of Libertytown parents into political activists. Faced with intense and well-organized opposition, Board of Education members explained to the media that the vote that was taken was a preliminary position, that a formal vote would follow at the next regularly scheduled public meeting.


You might not be shocked to know that once the next meeting began, the board discovered some flaws in the process employed by staff to develop the proposal. The maps and student counts were dispatched back to the drawing board, resulting in a sigh of relief from parents and political respite for the school board.


Not real gutsy, but smart.


Another type of political gut check comes in the form of candidate pledge and promise signings. Since the silly season is starting already, we'll be exposed to press reports of aspiring politicians signing pledges to not raise taxes, to increase environmental spending, to not restrict access to firearms, to raise teacher salaries, to not build roads, and to grant all manner of rights to illegal immigrants.


Not one of these pledge signers understands the first thing about real governing. Any fool can sign a piece of paper, especially a fool who isn't actually responsible for doing anything other than issuing press releases. How about a pledge to govern in a thoughtful and measured manner? Or maybe, a pledge to place the interests of taxpayers ahead of the tired and testy rhetoric emanating from the two major political party machines? How about a pledge to only raise the minimum campaign funds necessary to get a message out, shunning special interest funding altogether?


Could any of our current or future political leaders sign that kind of pledge?


Now that would be a real political gut check!


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

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