Amherst News-Times columnist offering perspectives on politics, science and social issues.
Monday, August 20, 2018
299. Ingredients for a perfect candidate
We often hear from voters that they are tired of politicians, particularly career politicians.
There are a few reasons for this, ranging from the desire for some fresh ideas to the fear that longtime politicians get too cozy with special interest groups. Often, I hear that voters want “ordinary people” to represent them.
When it comes to voting for political candidates, what are we really looking for?
I have a few ideas, but it is fair to note that these are just my thoughts and that there are many exceptions, both positive and negative:
First is a diverse background. Government encompasses so many areas of business, law, science, engineering, human resources, accounting, and philosophy. Whether through education or experience, I think it is incredibly valuable to have several areas of expertise. Issues are complicated and often engage economic, legal, and moral considerations. So I am weary of a candidate who has done the same job for 30 years. They might be incredibly smart and driven; however, their skills and areas of expertise might be too narrow. For example, the candidate might be a great doctor, but do they have the experience or knowledge to consider issues regarding the environment, manufacturing, or economic development? Our elected officers should represent all member of their constituents — that includes black people, poor people, and service workers as well as rich people, small business owners, and political donors.
I think it is optimal to have worked in both the private and public sector. The relationship between the two is an important one and best served by those who have considered the interests of both. This would also include experience with union workforces. Consider a successful businessperson. Whether it is a small business owner, for which voters often share affection, or a wealthy mogul, we have to remember that the primary interest and experience of that business owner is in the private sector.
Life experience is crucial and includes things like going to college, getting married, buying a house, and paying taxes. For that reason, I have concerns about young candidates. And it is not because they might not be brilliant and committed, but because, in my opinion, life experience matters. If a candidate has not spent time in “the real world” and done things like buying a house and paying property taxes, then I worry he or she won’t truly understand their constituents.
Leadership experience might include things like working with nonprofit organizations or serving on community boards. Leadership is a difficult quality and can be differentiated from advocacy and representation. One needs to understand the role government plays in each of the areas, such as the impact of raising taxes or applying for a grant. And, unfortunately, the truth is that some people are better in supportive roles. For example, in sports there are some outstanding assistant coaches who were awful head coaches.
Humility. Serving a community is a tremendous responsibility and public officials need to spend as much time listening as they do talking. The purpose of leadership is to improve the lives of the people in your community, not boost egos or practice narcissism. It is about spending time listening — really listening! — to constituents.
You have to be someone who can overcome obstacles. I like a candidate who has overcome adversity at some point in their life. Life is difficult and at one time or another most people have faced some difficult situations. I would rather have someone who took college courses in the evening, overcame financial challenges, or worked two jobs to provide for his or her family, than those who had their college paid for, a job waiting for them at Dad’s firm when they graduated, and a trust fund to buy their house.
I like people who “learned their politics.” What I mean is that they identified their political philosophies from their experiences, not simply adopted the platform of a political party. They’ve been downsized from a job or worked with immigrants. They have spent more time in the community, helping people without an agenda, than attending political fundraisers. They offer specifics on how to help the community rather than adopt slogans like, “I am going to be a crusader for the working man!” Say how you will help the working man!
Serving the public is a difficult job that can affect the lives of millions of people. Politicians need to be smart and informed and understand how one issue or interest may affect another. For example, placing a tariff on steel sounds great and rallies the out-of-work steelworkers; however, just that simple action, fair or not, has had a ripple effect throughout the world impacting workers and other industries.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Americans don’t take voting seriously enough. They don’t learn about the candidates and issues, don’t verify the statements of candidates and special interest groups, and too often lazily re-elect incumbents.
It takes effort and defining your own list of criteria. What are you looking for in a candidate?