Thursday, February 16, 2012

179. Self-promotion fuels campaigns

Generally speaking, I think every elective office should be contested at the end of each term. It is true that it is a burden for politicians to stop and campaign every two to four years-while they and their staff, and even their programs, live in uncertainty-but political office is a representative position. It is supposed to be about what the people you represent want. Elections are the exchange of competing ideas, electing the person who has the ability to present, and ultimately deliver, the community perspective that most represents his or her constituents.

In this respect, I am glad to see that there will be competition for the county commissioner positions next fall. I think I have met all of the candidates and both the incumbents, and think they are all good, quality candidates who genuinely want to see the best for the community. I am looking forward to a practical and specific exchange of ideas and am not writing here to endorse any of them.

And, as with any election, let us hope that it is this exchange of ideas to an informed public that decides the election-and not the typical clich├ęs, philosophical generalities, marketing gimmicks or grandstanding.

The truth is that campaigners are salesman; they are selling both a vision and themselves. We need to remember that fundamental concept when they campaign for our vote.

John Maxwell, a well-known speaker and writer on leadership agrees, "All leaders are salespersons. Though they may not be peddling a product, leaders are selling a picture of what the future could be and should be. They seek to persuade others to buy-in to a particular vision."

The question is which vision we will support.

It seems that every candidate is running on "fiscal responsibility," so much so that it is a non-issue. After all, nobody ever runs on fiscal irresponsibility. Asking if a candidate, in the current economic climate, will work to conserve resources, is like asking a car salesman if the car comes with tires. It falls into the "duh," category.

Unfortunately, many campaigns today are managed with an aim in manipulating voters rather than presenting real ideas to voters on the community's most difficult issues. Campaigning often falls back on banalities, like "fiscal responsibility" which means nothing until we understand how that is going to be accomplished. Where everyone wants small government (myself included), nobody wants the consequences of small government when it affects their individual interest. For some this interest is social services, others safety or infrastructure. The truth is that it takes very little skill to balance a budget if there is no consideration for the consequences. Any child with an elementary grasp of mathematics can cut programs and budgets to make revenue equal expenses. Promoting fiscal responsibly simply by cutting expenses is taking the easy way out.

What we need today are skilled leaders who can deliver us out of the current economic climate of stagnate revenue growth. We need practicality, experience and specifics more than we need the marketing of ideology.

Ultimately though, part of the sales job for all candidates is marketing. This combination of self-promotion and media-seeking gimmicks probably has the most influence in determining who wins an election-but says the least about the ideas, integrity and character of a candidate. Self-defining adjectives (always three-apparently two does not say enough and four must be arrogant) is utterly worthless in assessing a candidate. So are fancy websites, crisply-printed campaign flyers, television advertisements, cute slogans and conversation props. I want someone who is real, not someone who is trying to sell me a car. I appreciate candidates who are good listeners, but I also want to hear their ideas-real ideas. Voters need to do their research and not be limited to party affiliation, family name or good looks.

Real leadership is the ability to make difficult things happen. We need people who will go out into the community and pick it up by the boot straps. We need leaders who will fight to bring businesses to the area; who will go out and get public and private grants when they are available. We need people who will get sales tax increases passed when they are necessary. We need people who will do the right thing, even if it might be unpopular at first.

Leaders have conviction and believe in what they are doing; they believe in their ideas, ethics and morals. They feel this conviction is best for the community and they seek the community's endorsement. There is always room for compromise, but I am cautious of those candidates who play both sides. It feels like I am being sold snake oil.

A leader, to me, is someone like Dan Martin, who fought to bring a recreation center to Amherst. He could have walked away when voters decided they were unwilling to pay for it. He could even have been condescending or spiteful. But Martin was neither. Not only did Martin not accept the answer that voters delivered; he used other community resources and compromise to find another way. He got it done when many would have just given up. He delivered his vision and conviction-and the community will benefit from it.

In this way, I want to know how candidates are going to make it happen. I want to know the skills and experience they have in reaching out into the community and improving it. Experience matters and ideas alone do not make a candidate qualified. Finally, what I want is elected officials who are committed to the area. I do not want candidates looking to make a career of politics, and using Lorain County as a stepping stone.

Let us choose the most promising leaders, based on experience, skill, education, vision and conviction, for all of our elected positions, and not just the best campaigner.

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