Scorched earth politics – how does anyone think that it will build consensus or lead to lasting change?
It’s not just a national malady. It’s been creeping into local races as candidates no longer dissect issues by calmly pointing out the shortcomings of an opponent’s positions or policies nor do they offer a constructive solution that goes beyond predictable sound bites. Instead they engage in character assassination, in-your-face political tantrums, and try to tear apart opponents by delving into college term papers or repeatedly distorting their record with the objective you repeat lies enough that it will become the truth.
Of course candidates have deniability saying they can’t control political action committees or what they their supporters say and do. That may be true but they can speak up and set the record straight but why do that in a day and age where the ends justify the means regardless of one’s political persuasion.
The win-at-all-cost mantra ignores two little details. After you’re elected you still have to govern and sooner or later the pendulum swings back. At age 19 I’m not too sure I really grasped such concepts. Common sense, though, told me running against a 60-year-old highly respected incumbent for a Western Placer Unified School District board seat with two other challengers who were more than twice my age required me to show them the respect they deserved and to prove I had something better to offer.
I devised a two-sided, legal-sized campaign flyer that literally dissected a failed bond issue from the previous election including charts that took out bond indebtedness and enrollment projections to what was inferred as the trend in district informational pieces distributed to voters. In short I used the district’s own numbers to prove promises in terms of what could be done were unattainable as well as to illustrate enrollment projections were wild-eyed at best. It also didn’t help that the district was ignoring basic restraints such as the fact Western Placer was a low-wealth, high-tax district meaning the level of debt they ultimately wanted to generate was simply unattainable.
I was elected by a 400-vote margin while another incumbent was defeated by a school principal from a neighboring district who resided in Western Placer.
Winning the election was one thing. Working with three long-term board members as well as an educator who was just elected obviously with a greater depth of knowledge of schools than I had was another thing.
I clearly had goals. I made no pretense that I simply had an overriding desire to serve. I was not rigid. Only an idiot would have thought I could change things based on the fact I was simply elected when I clearly was in the minority. At the same time, only a fool would believe that I had all the answers.
I made a conscious effort to be courteous while being consistent. Even though I may have thought another trustee’s position was wrong-headed, I never approached a discussion on an issue as if their position had no merit. The end goal was not to get 100 percent of what I thought was the best course for Western Placer but to improve things overall.
That required listening, politely sharing my viewpoints and rationale, as well as being patient. The art of compromise moved the dial. It was rarely everything I wanted but there was progress. At the same time I also saw merit in some of their points as well as learning there are some things that are above the pay grade of a school board that while they may strike any sane person as insane or counterproductive you can’t do much about them on a lower level given they were either edicts of the Legislature or the Sacramento bureaucracy. Sometimes the solution we agreed upon was something that no one initially advanced. That’s the beauty of give-and-take. You often start looking at things from different angles and come up with even better workable solutions than you may have advocated.
This did not happen overnight. The pressure was on me as the “young upstart” to build trust. It wasn’t an easy thing to do but then again holding your tongue is a lot easier than bench pressing 200 pounds.
None of this is to imply I was walking a straight and narrow path of self-restraint. There were moments when I became indignant such as when I walked out of a closed-door session when the superintendent suggested the board needed to find candidates in the upcoming election who supported him or else he would retire. I know two wrongs don’t make a right – you’re not supposed to talk about closed door meetings – but the subject the superintendent brought up was a clear violation of subject matter that could legally be discussed away from the public’s eye.
That said, I rarely elevated perceived wrongs to mountains. In the case of the superintendent trying to manipulate an election it was clearly a mountain and not a molehill.
We need to pick our battles. We need to not require that everyone agree with us absolutely on every issue. We need to understand we are all humans and no one is infallible including ourselves. We need to know when to fold, when to hold, and when not to overplay our hand. We need to respect views we don’t agree with and make an effort to understand them.
What we don’t need is self-righteous indignation.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.