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January 10, 2011

A Political Journey Part Two

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, we examined the first phase of a political journey from small town administration to the state capital. Left unanswered was the question of design and intent.


To say that all of these events occurred intentionally as a part of an overall political strategy would be a stretch, but the truth is that one event led to another in a series of interconnected outcomes.


The next two elections resulted in fairly easy victories; it seemed the strategy had worked. The next seven years were a heady time in the state capital: the thrill of major policy battles, brokering late-night compromises, leading the county’s delegation through difficult battles with the county commissioners, and rediscovering a passion for serving the public.


That passion led to an indisputable conclusion. Fighting partisan battles over matters of basic policy is a massive waste of energy. The reason it occurs routinely is that the two major parties no longer care about Marylanders generally; they only care about Republican or Democratic Marylanders respectively.


Most would rather do nothing than do something that might reflect reasonable compromise. A real pity, that.


A volunteer stint helping with Randy McClement’s seeming long-shot mayoral campaign in Frederick ended with a victory that shocked many by the margin of winning votes. Randy was a fantastic candidate, focused on message and possessed of a clear vision for how to run the City of Frederick.


Following the victory, Randy asked me about joining his team. The aforementioned disillusionment with Annapolis added a level of interest that might otherwise have eliminated consideration.


Now, fully a year after vacating the House of Delegates seat, the work in Frederick’s City Hall requires a tremendous amount of energy, and an even greater commitment in time. Evening meetings have become a mandatory method of maintaining the kind of civic outreach necessary to manage today’s large city. For several months, it was the norm to have 11-12 night meetings out of 21 – 22 weeknights.


Randy and the aldermen want to run the city in the most transparent and accessible fashion residents have ever seen. God bless them for that.


There’s only one way to do that, which is to be out in the community on a nightly basis, sharing information in a direct and personal fashion. Since the mayor cannot possibly cover all of those commitments and obligations personally, it falls to his chief political operative to relieve that load.


Like service in the state legislature, being one of the top appointed officials in one of Maryland’s largest cities is a whirlwind of meetings, interviews, and opportunities to make a positive impact on the lives of friends and strangers. People know who you are and aspire to be connected because of that.


This is the great conundrum of public service. You get into it to do good for others. The higher you go, the more good you can do. It feeds on itself, and to deny that you’d enjoy the positive feedback that comes from doing these jobs well is to ignore the most basic human nature.


In my own case, I have enjoyed each stop along this amazing journey. Starting in Brunswick, I loved working for the people with whom I live, making their city government meet their expectations was a daily thrill. Mayors Dick Goodrich and Tom Smith believed in me, and we made a powerful team. Jim Grimes is one of the most important factors in my professional/political development, and I learned a great deal at his side at City Hall in Frederick. The county commissioners’ position is a grind, a mix of planner and budget specialist that takes a great deal of time to do well. The House of Delegates is more relaxed form of public service, with the action restricted to a whirlwind 90 days from January to April.


So now, the circle is complete. I leave the huge and well appointed second floor office in Frederick’s historic City Hall for the more humble surroundings in the Brunswick City Hall building I helped create over 10 years ago. It has nothing to do with Mayor McClement; I consider him a close personal friend, and an even better chief executive. I hope, should he desire another term of office, he calls me to help volunteer on a future campaign.


This one is totally on me. Power, position, and privilege simply don’t matter to me anymore. I’ve been there and done that. Spending more time with my ever-expanding family is my consuming passion; grandchildren are such a special treasure that I don’t want to miss even one moment of their growth and maturity. My wife and I spent a lot of time camping last summer, and I’ve decided that I prefer the quiet of a clear mountain night to the lively debate of a community meeting.


Does this make sense? Apparently not, at least to some. Here’s the best part of maturity: stuff that used to matter a lot no longer matters at all. When asked what I think of the people who will criticize my decision, the answer flies off the tongue. Every opinion matters, but the only opinions that alter my thinking are those expressed by my family. All of the political power, profile, and name recognition won’t matter one iota in the final tally.


Let them wallow in their own negativity; I’ll be busy with the grandsons!


Now for the warning for aspiring politicians: These positions, laden with power and privilege, come with a terrible price. Birthdays, anniversaries, school plays, homework assignments, and those most essential opportunities to stay connected to family and close friends are routinely sacrificed, sometimes by necessity, sometimes as a tradeoff to gain advantage in the power and privilege game.


A prediction: Many politicians never learn this difficult lesson. In fact, the history books are littered with bitter ex-elected officials who were unable to walk away at the top of their game and were instead told by the voters that their services were no longer desired. It’s a painful way to learn a lesson, and that pain lingers for a long time.


Due to the seductive nature of power, I predict this will happen again – many times.


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