It is now February and I’m already sick of politics. I turn on the radio and all I hear is “Obama said this” and “Gingrich said that” and you throw in Romney, Cain, Bachman and a few others, plus Sarah Palin being the armchair quarterback on the sidelines- and that is just for the Presidential race. Congress is a completely different story. Typical sound bites you hear from the radio say that “Congress is broken”, “Congress doesn’t work”, “Tea Party”, “Democrats”, “Republicans”, “Repeal Obamacare” and so forth. This is our Federal government in the year 2012.
I’ve worked in local government for 26 years now. Politics works on a completely different level in the local government arena because that is the level of government where people and their elected officials meet face to face to hash out the issues and deal with the real problems that are important to most people. Local government officials, both elected and appointed, are the first step in the three steps of governance; local, state and federal. Federal deals with laws and major programs that span all fifty states, plus funding for a few other things like our entire military and defense. Local government deals with things such as how to fund a basketball program or pay for an ambulance. State government is stuck between the two others, dealing with both the lower and the upper levels and trying to make sure the state doesn’t get left out.
So much for the lesson in Government 101. What is the real deal? Local government officials deal with everything from mud on the road to whether the road is safe. They field calls from people on every imaginable topic, from where to get their tag to borrowing a screwdriver to put it on their car. Federal gives them lively debate, managed healthcare, pointed accusations, social security insecurities, partisan bickering, opinion polls and a full pension even if you only serve one two-year term. Local government gives them (or tries hard to) safer roads, a fire engine to protect their home, a soccer field for their kids to play on, a deputy or police officer to keep the bad guys from breaking in your home and clean water to drink.
All of this comes at a price of course and people debate with their elected officials about their taxes or how much something costs and they do this because it’s their right and they can. Try driving to Washington and going by your Congressman’s office, walking in the door and seeing him or her about how much income tax you are paying. Try even finding your Congressman’s office. I went by mine while I was in Washington and we couldn’t even find it for the longest time. Eventually we located it at the end of a maze of corridors, stairs and turns in what seemed to be the attic of one of the congressional office buildings. I remember thinking that it was no wonder Congress was in such a mess because it would take junior members their first six months in office to learn how to find their own office.
Local government is different because it is about people and on that level, you get to look people in the eye. People get into local government in one of two ways: they work for it or they run for office but whichever way they enter the door, they are there because of the people in the community that they serve. Their reasons for getting into local government are much more varied. Maybe they run for office because they felt they had something to offer that would make the community better. Maybe they took a job with local government because of the challenges that come with the job. I’m sure some have entered the local government arena hoping for personal financial gain but I can honestly say that of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, there have always been a lot more accused of working for personal gain than ever actually were doing so and those that may have been are long gone.
I had two reasons for going to work in local government. One was that I was once young and idealistic and I wanted to help others. The other reason was I couldn’t stand working in the barbecue business and besides that, people don’t need help finding the barbecue stand anyway. I could find it with my nose if I follow the smoke and so could most everyone else I know.
I must confess to you something now that I need to unburden from myself. I am guilty of having worked for and having received personal gain from my years in local government. I have experienced personal gain through satisfaction in watching an idea I wrote down on the back of a business card become a reality and even more satisfaction when something I was involved in made a positive difference in someone else’s life. I have experienced personal gain through pride when we have come together as one big team and created something or legislated something that has made our community a better and stronger place than it would have been otherwise. I have experienced personal gain through the admiration and respect I have had for many other local government officials, both elected and appointed, who have given me the benefit of their wisdom, shared their vision with me, became an example to me and those who have just been a friend and coworker. Most of all, I have experienced personal gain from the encouragement, the support, the good wishes and at times, the prayers of the people of my community who put their trust and faith in me to always try and do the right thing for their well-being. Prayers help, believe me, and we need them a lot. While some may go into public service hoping to find personal gain, that was not my intention, yet I found it anyway and I suspect that a lot of my associates have as well. To be honest, I have never met a commissioner, a mayor, a councilmember, a department head or an administrator who didn’t want to make some kind of positive difference in the life of their community, city or county. As for our state and federal officials, the best and most impactful ones I have ever known are the ones who started out in local government because they wanted to make a positive difference in their communities. They may not always rise to become the most powerful ones in the Capitol but they are usually the ones that are remembered and that have the affection of their constituency.
It isn’t always about personal gain though. Sometimes it takes from you as well. I have experienced frustration when I have failed at something and I take failure personally, whether it is my fault or whether it was something where it was impossible to succeed. I have boiled over at delays, fumed over obstacles and I have seen the toll it can sometimes take on your personal life and that of others. I have seen good people targeted by others for trying to do the right thing and I have seen outside influences work to shape things for the good of the few instead of the good of all. I have even seen some give up their lives in the service of others. To say it had all been good would be a lie but I honestly feel that the good has outweighed the bad and usually will if you remain positive. I’m not young anymore but I like to think that I am still idealistic, just with a touch more “realistic” added to the mix.
Politics, according to Wikipedia, “is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs. It consists of ‘social relations involving authority or power’ and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy”. It really has nothing to do with the actual election of officials or how appointed officials get appointed, nor their campaign to get there. It really just boils down to the processes that are often necessary to get the job done and accomplish something.
Having said that, I guess I should not say that I am sick of politics. That is unfair to the word itself. I am sick of talk and rhetoric that leads to nothing but more talk and rhetoric. I hope someday those who govern the country and influence the world will take some lessons from those that worry about roads, bridges, services, parks and most of all, people. At the end of the day, people are all that matter anyway. People and the prayers they send our way that is.