Posted by: sweeneyblog | January 18, 2011

Where do Politicians Come From

Where Do Politicians Come From?
Local elected officials come in all shapes, sizes and experience levels. In perfect world, they are citizens compelled by a desire to improve their communities that heed the call of public service. In actuality, reasons for running for local office vary from outrage over a specific policy, a desire for the spotlight, ambition for bigger things to wanting a hobby. We as the voters, have to consider background, skill set as well as motivation when we elect our local leaders.

Let’s start with background. Most local elected positions are legislative: School board, city council, county council, port commissioner. The representative is supposed to represent citizen concerns, draft potential solutions, and build consensus. So we would want someone who has experience bringing groups of people together and getting them to compromise. They need to be able to represent views they don’t necessarily feel a great deal of passion about and at least conversant in a wide range of issues so that they can know what they are deciding on.
The last and critical element of a local elected official is free time. Most of these positions involved a medium time commitment (multiple meetings a week usually). This means that whoever gets elected must either have some serious schedule flexibility or have other means of financial support than working a 9 to 5 job. This, to my mind, is the biggest limiting factor. We have hundreds of well qualified people, that have the inclination and the skill set to vastly improve our local government, but they are unable to make the financial sacrifice for public service.

Think about it for a moment. Who does this leave? Who has the flexibility, financial resources and the passion to take on these tasks?

  • The Retired: Most of those involved in local politics are retired or headed there shortly. They have the time and have lots of experience within the community.
  • The Wealthy: Obviously the time sacrifice is not a huge concern, and they can raise money from their wealthy friends.
  • Business Leaders, Executive Directors, and Lawyers: These people can take a day off at their discretion and similar to the idle rich, they can raise money from their peers.

Obviously these categories leave out some people but a majority of our council members come from these categories. So who does this leave out? A great deal of “working stiffs” those middle and lower income citizens that do not have the time or energy to devote to our government. Younger citizens would find themselves completely locked out, being unable to afford to serve in office, much less run. Mothers often find themselves unable to spend the time necessary while raising kids.

This is how we end up with so much group-think in our elected officials. When you have people gathering who come from similar backgrounds, share the same worldview, it leads to a limited pool of experience and less creative ideas in government.

As the next crop of local candidates begins to step forward, ask yourself: What perspective is missing in our government today? What do we already have well represented and what do we need? A diverse government filled with civil-minded individuals can be far more effective that a bevy of clones.



  1. […] Picture stuff: What is the difference between a Hack and a Wonk? Where do politicians come from and why is that important? Why does the younger generation have such a different perspective on the national […]

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