Some advice for our candidates for local office

Over the past several months, I have been approached by a number of potential candidates for local office. On the one hand, I am flattered that some would seek my counsel about a task that is crucial to our community. On the other hand, I wonder if they have come to the right guy. After all, I was a one-term wonder, having been “unelected” in my try for a second term.

I think the advice I gave is as applicable to the electorate as it is for the candidates. We ought to try to understand a person’s motivations and philosophy as well as their campaign rhetoric.

First, it is not a trivial decision to run for office. You need to understand what you give up. It takes time, potentially lots of it. The meeting packets are sometimes overwhelming. It becomes an art to be able to sift through the chaff to find the wheat and there often is precious little of that. It also takes time away from other activities: business, volunteering, and most significantly, family.

Second, decide if you want to play politics or help govern our community. Politics is about position and ideology. Governance is about compromise. If you are unwilling to compromise, you will not be effective and you will generally not help government function. This is clearly the problem in Washington today.

Many views are brought to the table, but in the end it was all about four votes. Without being able to muster a majority of the seven-member BMA, the best ideas were worthless. Rarely, did I get everything I wanted. In fact, I often voted for policy I never would have advocated, but it was the best we were going to get.

I don’t know if this was the right approach. Alternatively, some members routinely refused to alter their position. Generally, this has lessened their impact. Even when they had good ideas, they were marginalized because other Board members knew that they weren’t going to vote for anything less than their proposal. For me, this is not governance.

For example, in the end you have to have a budget passed no matter how much you may dislike any particular part.  To be honest, I sometimes resented those that took the “moral high ground” and left the rest of us to do the heavy-lifting. I took some solace in the fact I might have been able to move the meter a couple of ticks in the right direction.

I preferred to be a part of the team and save my influence for what really mattered to me. I have advised potential candidates to think hard about what is truly important for them and keep their powder dry for those policies. If you build your political capital, hopefully you can get those with whom you cooperated to understand when it was their turn to give in. It doesn’t always turn out the way you wish, but I found it to be relatively effective approach.

Perhaps it is simply self-justification and I often left meetings feeling “icky,” like something unsavory was stuck to my fingers. I know (because they told me) that some people couldn’t understand how, given my statements, I could vote for some of the things I did.

“It is all about four votes.” That is the sad truth about governance.

For all of my commentary about compromise, I do not advocate “giving in.” Kingsport is the most “go along-get along” community in which I have ever lived. Most people are afraid to voice an opinion for fear that someone might take offense. If that is your approach, don’t run! We don’t need you and you will be of no help in improving our community.

For a democracy to function, there really must be a diversity of ideas. Before the compromise, there should be a healthy and lively debate. I have counseled would-be candidates to be strong enough to speak their mind. More importantly, don’t be afraid to question an idea that is brought forward. This is not a “nice-to-have” quality, it is critical.

In particular, challenge the staff. They are knowledgeable, but that makes them neither experts nor correct. I found the staff to have particular difficulties when it came to project analysis. The problem stems from the fact that they do not have to make a profit in their operations, only create some public benefit.

Frequently, the project is cast this way: “This is the benefit we get for spending “X” million dollars.” That is the wrong approach. All projects no matter how much they cost provide some benefit. That is not the point.

The question should be: “If we are willing to spend “X” million dollars, which project would give us the greatest return on our investment.” This is how a business would approach it, but it is not how government bureaucracies formulate policy.

In creating budgets, they are trained to determine what they believe needs to be done and simply say this is what it costs, regardless of the revenues available. They do not feel the imperative to break even because there is always more tax money out there. That is the elected officials’ problem.

Government needs to learn how to operate within a constrained environment. Above all else, that is the guidance the elected officials must give.

Some of those with whom I spoke are going to run; some are not. I wish those that do, Godspeed. They will need all the wisdom and blessings they can get. We are in for a rough ride for a while and I applaud their willingness to step into the arena.


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