Archive for September 2010
The day after Election Day was a tough one for me. Many of the candidates I voted for did not win, and the candidate I campaigned for lost by a few hundred votes. It felt similar to the various stages of grief, except denial is short-lived after the results are announced, and I quickly transitioned from denial to anger.
First, I was angry about how money seemed to play such a large role in determining the outcome. Piles of mail and endless signage seemed to influence the results more than the qualifications of the candidates. It seems unfair that even though anybody can run for office, unless you have access to thousands of dollars, you really do not stand a chance of remaining competitive against the field.
I was also mad about the endorsement process. It felt like “kingmaking” was in play when an opponent received every single endorsement—from the media, the unions, and the political establishment. Although endorsements are supposed to let voters know that candidates have been vetted thoroughly by specific interest groups, the endorsed candidate in our race received campaign contributions from unions and other politicians long before the official endorsement process began. The Washington Post only spent 10 minutes interviewing each candidate over the telephone, so in this case, it came down to “may the best talker win.”
I was outraged by the games that were played with the “official” ballots. These ballots are merely recommendations from the senator in your district about who they support on the ballot. They are not designed as the “official” Democratic party endorsement of candidates. Yet, at the polls, I clearly heard voters being intimidated by poll workers about avoiding “fake” ballots, voting for the person that Congressman Hoyer supports, or following the check marks on the “official” Democratic ticket. That did not seem very Democratic to me.
If we allow the unions, media, money, endorsements, and ballots to tell us how to vote, then we are obviously letting them take our vote for granted. I witnessed much of that during the campaign. After I have had time to further reflect on the whole experience, however, I moved past blaming these factors for our loss at the polls. I finally realized that we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. As the Washington Post reported, only 20 percent of registered Democrats even voted. Of the 400,000 registered Democrats, only 41,000 voted for Rushern Baker. If only ten percent of the county voted for him, that’s really not a resounding victory.
If we as Prince Georgians do not vote, it means you better really like how your neighbor voted on September 14. If you did not vote, then the neighbor four houses down from you just decided the future of our community. That neighbor’s vote will affect your taxes, your children’s school, public safety staffing, land use decisions, and more. If the electorate does not make their voice heard at the polls, then it will be even more challenging down the road to get the work done. In order to transform our county, it will require every person to be engaged in the process. If only 20 percent are even voting, we have a long way to go in accomplishing that mission.
When voters go to the polls, it is not uncommon for them to encounter many names they may not recognize, especially as they move further down the ballot. In elections like the primary that recently occurred in Prince George’s County, this is not an unusual occurrence as voters had to make several choices, starting at Governor and moving all the way down to Register of Wills. I’m not even sure many of the positions should be chosen by elected office, since John and Jane Q. Public may have no idea how to adequately evaluate qualifications in these cases.
In other cases, however, some candidates who filed for important positions, such as delegate or County Council, were still barely recognizable at the polls. Often, I was hard pressed to locate their campaign materials, a website, or anything else that might prove that they were legitimate contenders for elected office. Some made a last ditch effort to post road signs or show up at a public forum, but had little presence otherwise to prove they were serious candidates. A few candidates did not even bother to provide responses about their campaign platforms in voter guides for the Washington Post and the Gazette.
While I have not followed up with them personally, I wonder what these candidates might have been thinking about their opportunity to actually win, given their minimal effort. Did they believe they could drive up the middle in a crowded field and steal enough votes to win? Did they lack the resources to print materials and signage? Were their calendars too crowded with other commitments to present their platforms at public forums? I’m not sure of their answers to these questions, but I am suspicious about their motives.
As I learned while working as a campaign volunteer, and seasoned politicians are sure to know, many voters do not take the time to research their choices down the ballot. In general, a crowded field always makes it more difficult for competitors to stand out from the other candidates. Because names are also listed in alphabetical order on the ballot, it benefits those who have serious competitors to crowd the field with candidates whose last names begin with “A” or “B.” By doing so, uninformed voters may be more likely to check off the first or second name they see on the ballot, which allows unknown candidates to steal a couple of percentage points from legitimate contender.
It’s unfortunate that candidates who file for office but never initiate a public campaign, knock on doors to ask for your vote, or even open accounts to pay for any campaign materials, are able to be on the ballot. Of course, that’s how our democracy works, and I do not believe we can prohibit anybody from seeking elected office. Unfortunately, mystery candidates are often able to muster a few hundred votes that separate the winners and losers in local races. The Board of Elections should do their part by requiring a random order of candidates on the ballot following the filing deadline, to prevent the political machine from manipulating voters in this way. If I accomplish one thing from this blog, however, I hope it is the fact that voters will take the time to find out what their candidates stand for and ensure that they are truly concerned about representing their districts, and not just simply playing a role in political games.
If I learned anything from the recent primary election, it’s the fact that retail politics is probably my favorite part of the campaign trail. Although I am disappointed by the outcome in many of the local races in Prince George’s County, I will fondly remember the enthusiastic response I received as I knocked on hundreds of doors daily in the past four months to campaign for the candidate that I supported.
I must admit that I was quite surprised by the number of residents who opened their doors, welcomed me into their homes, offered refreshments, and listened to me discuss the platform of the candidate that I represented. However, what surprised me the most about the experience was the fact that not once did a resident ever tell me that someone else had knocked on their door to personally ask for their vote. They complained about the endless robocalls, the piles of junk mail, the signs all over the roads, and the lack of real information reported in the media. They were impressed that a volunteer would actually take the time to come to their home, explain their platform, and respond to their concerns.
Although I met hundreds of wonderful people who really care about the future of our county, two people really stand out to me, and I want to share their stories with you. The first is one of our senior residents, and I met him just a few days before the primary election. I was out on a Friday evening, and feeling a bit discouraged and tired. He was outside in his yard, watering his lawn, and seemed lost in his own thoughts. I wondered if he would really even want to listen to my campaign pitch, or whether I would be interrupting his peace and quiet. I introduced myself, and who I represented, and handed him some literature. He told me he was partially blind, and couldn’t see well, so he asked if I could read the information to him, and explain my candidate’s platform. I spent the next 30 minutes going through every detail, responding to his questions honestly, and quite frankly wondering whether I would even get to another person before nightfall. As we wrapped up our conversation, he told me that in his 16 years living in his home, not one person had ever bothered to come and ask for his vote, and explain why he should vote for them. He told me not only would he vote for my candidate, but he grabbed my hand and prayed for me, gave me a hug, and thanked me for coming by. That brought me a tremendous sense of peace and encouragement, and motivated me to stick with it until we crossed the finish line.
The other person who I will never forget meeting is a young man who lived right in my neighborhood. When I knocked on his door, I heard his parents ask him to answer because they didn’t feel like talking to me. I didn’t expect much from him, except to pass along my candidate’s literature. However, I was pleasantly surprised that he kept listening as I explained our platform, and began reading the literature I handed to him. I asked if he had ever voted, or whether he was even registered. He said he had registered, but at 20 years old, he had never gone to cast a vote for anyone before. I told him why our local elections are so important, and really got excited about the possibility of engaging him in the process and talked to him for a few more minutes. I closed with the question I always ask, which is “Can I count on your vote on September 14?” He paused, looked right at me, and said “You have really pretty eyes, thank you for coming by.” I have to admit, I’m usually not at a loss for words, but that left me speechless. I thanked him for his time, and moved on, disappointed at the outcome.
On election day, I worked the poll near my home, and after several long hours of chasing after voters, somebody was actually tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention. When I turned around, I saw that very same young man coming to cast his vote for the first time. He smiled, shook my hand, and thanked me for coming to his door that day to talk about my candidate and explain why it was important for him to vote. After I spent some time reflecting on our loss, I found this silver lining in the campaign is the memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Next time I’ll get back to some of my real work of bring more transparency about how the election process really worked, outside of the public eye, but for today I wanted to give everyone a reason to keep pressing on, because you never know when and where you might be making a difference.
With the primary campaign season behind us, many of you may recall, but have already forgotten, about the Pledge for Prince George’s County. Launched by County Executive Candidate Rushern Baker and funded by Southern Management Company, it provided a way for Baker to re-introduce himself to voters, and showcased Council candidates who pledged to work with him to achieve important County goals. You probably saw the slick television advertisements, read the newspapers that were reporting about it, and heard the promises from the candidates who signed it.
Although the pledge is a great concept, the voters have heard many of the same promises from our elected officials in past campaigns. Unfortunately, if you look around you, it’s obvious that our public servants have yet to deliver on many of their promises to us. That’s because the promises are made outside the practical realities of operating within local government. To be fair, Baker has never actually worked for local government, so he may have limited knowledge of how challenging it will be to deliver on his pledge. It’s unfortunate that our new administrator has no actual experience within the halls of local government, but neither have many of our past leaders either. When is the last time you got a job where you had no actual experience to demonstrate your capability for doing it? That’s only one of the challenges we face in our system of government here in the county.
Getting back to the Pledge for Prince George’s County, the reason it is already a distant memory and faded from the news as the primary approached, is because it opened Baker up to criticism down the road. He, probably along with many other candidates, have already realized that they conveniently forgot to talk about what the pledge was going to cost, or how they planned to pay for it. Neither has Baker ever talked about how he will report on the results of the pledge to residents. Ironically, no candidate ever made a pledge to step down if they did not deliver on their bold promises. They have been conveniently silent about that matter, because some of them have every intention of running for re-election, and to continue their political careers by running for higher office.
Where does that leave you, the voters? You deserve transparency from elected officials that pledge to respond to your concerns, and be measured by a scorecard of results. Outside of the spotlight of cameras, television crews, and reporters, we need elected officials who ensure that we are getting what we deserve for our tax dollars.
Four years from now, after the pledge is just a piece of history in the 2010 campaign, this blogger will be keeping a scorecard that measures the real results of the Pledge for Prince George’s County, long after our elected officials will be hoping voters forgot about it. It will take more than an advertising campaign for translating a pledge into reality, and I’m going to make sure our public servants are held accountable for that.