So you wanna be a public servant?
Read this first
Thu, Oct 1, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Steve Marcus
It’s that time of the year when candidates organize their campaigns. The window for filing candidacies is not yet here, but campaigns never wait for that. This year, there is even more urgency to get going, because the Nevada primary election has been moved up to June. If you’ve ever wanted to run for public office, this could be the year. Think of it: If you’re elected, you’ll have a whole new life of wonderful experiences.
You’ll have lots less time to spend with your family, because you’ll have to go to dinners, parties and picnics, march in parades, give speeches, and on and on. If you decline these invitations, you’ll be thought elitist and out of touch with your constituents. If you rise to serious office-holding, and it becomes a career, you may well find when you reach the end of it that it wasn’t worth what you lost in family relationships. That’s what former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Richard Bryan said happened to him.
Being in public life will put a strain on your personal relationships. If you’re married, don’t count on staying that way.
And family can be a double-edged sword. On the campaign trail, voters told Sue Wagner—former state legislator and lieutenant governor—that she belonged at home with her children.
Your votes on some issues will cost you friends. Among members of the public, you will be thought by your critics not just mistaken or wrong on issues, but evil. The lengths to which this kind of thing can be taken can be seen on an Internet site, Blogs for Bush, where one person posted a comment wishing for the death of Harry Reid.
You’ll even discover that some things we think have passed from the scene are still with us, as in this online posting about Las Vegas’ mayor that certainly makes office-seeking seem attractive: “So Sen. Ensign, whom I’ve called many times for different bills, is being attacked by the press for sex. Oscar Goodman, the Mayor, a Jewish mayor, doesn’t get attacked for sex, because he has a Jewish wife, and kids. Jewish women are the curse of modern civilization, but one can’t say we are living in ‘civilized’ times, but barbaric times of the mind, where we get abused and don’t even know we are abused.” It gets worse from there.
As that example shows, in this computer age, the Internet has provided new opportunities for vitriol and cowardice. Information of dubious reliability is posted by people hiding behind the anonymity of pen names.
You’ll make less money. But everyone will assume you’re on the take.
You’ll discover the meaning of the term “double standard.” When you have disputes, from traffic tickets to more serious matters, public officials will bend over backward to be tough on you to show they’re not going easy on a politician—but the public will believe you got special treatment anyway.
Your critics, in the press and among community activists, will always put the worst possible interpretation on any action of yours they disagree with or question. Those actions will not be stands of principle or legitimate preference. They will be politics or corruption or idiocy. “Corrupt” in particular is a term that is thrown around with abandon and without merit.
No one outside your inner circle of friends and family will ever give you the benefit of the doubt.
The cost of service. You may make so much less money that you may not be able to continue serving. Democrat Rick Heaney and Republican Pat Hickey, both of Washoe County, are examples of capable state legislators who left office after one term to save their businesses. Both were hurt by trying to serve in what is basically a full-time office paid as a part-time job.
Reporters will consistently fail to understand your motivations. You may have a real commitment to your community, but journalism is heavily populated with people who move from one media market to another every few years and have no stake in their latest community. So they will have no frame of reference for understanding why you act the way you do.
You may have a 10-point plan that will solve the biggest public-policy crisis in the nation, but reporters will speculate about your political motives or how it will affect your re-election. Actual analysis of your policy proposals will be rare to nonexistent.
When reporters do treat you fairly, it will be little consolation to you, because there will always be the ones who don’t—and they’re the ones who produce the reports that most stick in the public’s memory. These are the reporters who, when they interview you, ask leading questions and then write stories filled with emotionally loaded terms. This kind of coverage won’t do much for you or for the community, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped advance a young journalist’s career on to the next market.
On one occasion in the mid-1980s, a Washoe legislative candidate learned that a local daily was about to run a story profiling her and her opponent. She was stunned, because the reporter had never contacted her. She called the newspaper and learned the story had already been written and was ready to print, even though only one candidate had been interviewed. The newspaper agreed to delay and rewrite the story.
Reporters will also believe you have no rights. Public figures are public property. That’s a valid proposition, but journalists like to project it to its greatest extreme and turn it into a license to kill. They sometimes extend this proposition to cover your family.
Once your face becomes a little familiar, you’ll get to meet new people. Someone will interrupt you at a family dinner in a restaurant to talk to you about your position on the cover-up of President Obama’s birthplace.
The price of speech. In this land of the First Amendment, you’ll be amazed to discover how many ways officialdom has to keep you from saying what you want to say—or to punish you if you say something powerful people don’t want you to say.
Members of the state Legislature, who wanted a mechanism by which they could hail their election challengers before an official panel, empowered the Nevada Ethics Commission to punish political speech. That way, politicians would not have to wait for the outcomes of lawsuits like those raggedy members of the public.
The lawmakers also enacted laws allowing the secretary of state to police the content of campaign materials.
When he was a district attorney running for the U.S. Senate, William Raggio criticized a death-penalty ruling of the Nevada Supreme Court. The court decided that while free speech is okay, the legal community should have its own brand of the stuff. It convened a state bar committee to investigate disciplining Raggio. (Remember that he didn’t say anything that could affect a trial; he only criticized the justices.) Then they let the matter, which could have been handled in an afternoon, hang over Raggio’s head during his entire campaign. Not until after the election was the matter decided with a reprimand for his discussion of the issues.
Issue hazards You’ll get to spend long hours studying the issues, being briefed by experts and listening to testimony from the public in hearings. And people who are not at all informed will tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about because you disagree with them.
Although you’ll spend a lot of time learning issues, some members of the public won’t believe a word you say—but they will believe outlandish claims by talk-show hosts, authors of screwball paperbacks, perennial candidates, unsigned online commenters, people who are regular callers to talk shows or purveyors of anonymous paranoid Xeroxlore. You will find that the capacity of some folks to swallow crazy stuff is unlimited. And the press will do a lousy job of correcting the myths and lies.
You’ll learn there is no sense of the fitness of things in political life. A street-widening project will be treated with all the anger and intensity of the war in Vietnam.
After you’re sworn into office, you’ll discover that many of those folks who helped you in your campaign didn’t do it for good government after all. They’ll come around to cash in the campaign contributions they made.
You’ll run as a member of a political party because tradition and the election laws make it almost impossible to get elected any other way. But once you’re in office, you’ll discover that political-party leaders take their parties seriously, and you’ll be expected to elevate party loyalty over the public good.
As a first-time candidate, you’ll discover the ways the system is rigged in favor of incumbents. If you’re running statewide in Nevada, for instance, you’ll find that one of the lines on the Nevada ballot reads “none of these candidates”—a deft mechanism for draining away anti-incumbent votes that would otherwise likely go to challengers. In 1998, for instance, Sen. Reid won reelection by 428 votes, while “none” received more than 8,000.
Direct democracy People will want to vote on everything themselves. They’ll agree that not everything can go directly on the ballot, but their particular issue is the exception. And your refusal to support putting it on the ballot will be a betrayal of the public’s trust.
You’ll discover that the initiative, referendum and recall petitions that you always idealized as ways for the public to be heard are used mainly by moneyed big shots and industries. Such California-style initiative government will make your life hell as you try to navigate the demands of all those lobbyists and special interests that use ballot measures.
You’ll get to witness the full range of human obsessions. Certain folks will bug you about what you’re doing or not doing about the scheme by the Federal Reserve to take over the world.
You’ll be in office in part to restrain passions, but if you vote the public’s interest over the public’s desire, you’ll be accused of failing to represent the people who elected you.
You’ll be all wrapped up in the issues that concern your particular office—welfare reform or street lighting or criminal prosecutions—and members of the public will badger you about flag burning.
If regular callers to radio talk shows get your home phone number, they’ll become regular callers to you. Years ago, television character Lou Grant explained the process: “There are more lunatics each day. They all got loose, and they all got dimes.” (Adjust for inflation.)
It’s all a part of the rich pageantry of democracy. So jump right in and run for office. Remember, democracy is not a spectator sport.
This story first appeared in the Reno News & Review.