As someone who has run for public office — once in vain and twice successfully — I understand the experience of candidates and elected officials. I therefore wish to honor those who have just completed another grueling campaign season.
I do so as someone leaving public office and returning to life as a private citizen. In December, I will retire from my position as the mayor of Newcastle, an Eastside suburb of Seattle. It is the culmination of two terms — and eight years — on the City Council.
At a time when many Americans are fed up with politics as usual and the gridlock inherent in a government without a king, we should stop to give thanks to our fellow citizens who have the courage to place their names on a ballot. In doing so, they open themselves up to public examination, often at great personal sacrifice. It isn’t for the faint of heart.
I will never forget the opening comment made by an attorney who spoke at a newly elected officials training seminar I attended in early 2008. “Congratulations!” he proclaimed. “Today you have far fewer rights than you did as a private citizen.” In our free and open democracy, all actions, statements and authorship of letters, emails and other correspondence are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Early in my tenure there was even a push in the state Legislature to require audio recording of executive sessions — the last bastion of privacy afforded to elected bodies — where discussions, but no actual votes or final action may be taken. Though well-intended, the measure would have had a chilling effect on those rare conversations that are necessarily held behind closed doors. In my estimation, it would have also had a chilling effect on anyone considering public service. Who, after all, would want a position under such intense and constant scrutiny?
Thankfully, many still do. And they deserve our praise and admiration. Years ago, I had the privilege of working for then-U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. I can attest that then, as now, few constituents call to say what a great job you’re doing. Instead they call out of frustration with decisions with which they disagree, about the slow pace of government, or simply to complain. This isn’t always true, of course. But it is the norm, not the exception.
It begins early, too. I remember sign-waving once in Newcastle and hearing a horn honk — enthusiastically, I thought — only to see the driver give me an emphatic “thumbs down.” And I had yet to be elected to anything.
To be a candidate is to give up time and energy, to spend time away from family, to knock on thousands of doors, to develop campaign-material websites and social-media strategies, to attend dozens of community gatherings and forums, to be berated by opponents and their supporters, and to subject oneself to newspaper, radio and television interviews — and all this without any guarantee of success. I lost my first campaign and was devastated. I was successful two years later, blissfully unaware of the challenges of serving in public office — even in a small city like Newcastle.
The truth is that great responsibility is placed in the hands of our elected leaders. First and foremost are the decisions they make with respect to public safety, from policing and fire protection to national security. They are guardians of our tax dollars — charged with managing money that is not theirs, but to which they are entrusted. They are planners who set the rules governing what a city, state or nation aspires to become, for good or ill. More than any other citizens, they are responsible for the livability and viability of the places we call home.
Meeting these objectives is not easy. There is no such thing as fiat in a legislative body. Compromises must be reached, alliances formed, party loyalties tested, and friendships gained and lost. Though citizens may not realize it, when they question a particular vote by an elected official, sometimes that official questions it, too. Though few in number, there are votes I have taken that I later regretted. It is not a perfect system, but it’s the best one we’ve got. Thankfully each year we have fellow citizens who are willing to participate. They are absolutely vital and necessary, not a necessary evil.
So a hearty thank you to those who pay a big sacrifice — at little personal gain — to represent our interests. I hope you will join me this week in recognizing and celebrating those citizens who are brave enough to serve our communities.