commentary
August 18, 2006

 

A race lost but worth it
by Patrick Dobson

Standing for office seemed like a great idea. After writing about the Jackson County government for a decade, I had become disgusted with what was a closed club, rife with low-level graft and corruption. The position of county legislator was entrée to a way to do something good for working people. I had the summer to campaign.

But the club doesn’t share well with anyone, particularly the kid who wants things fair for everyone. Fortunately, I didn’t know that until I had committed to run for the First District legislative seat — and anyone who knows me knows that once committed, I have to give it all I have, despite the odds.

As a journalist, I had seen how Jackson County government had run over people with no connection or wealth. I had seen the arrogance of the legislators who treated their positions as if they were all on a big lark. I had witnessed legislators and appointed officials treat citizens as if citizens were there to serve them, rather than the other way around.

And perhaps, at the bottom of it all, I have resentment against power and money and people who use the public’s assets to serve themselves. Call it a kid who was never able to hang out with the cool people, and then didn’t want to when he could. Moreover, I had an odd notion that elected officials should serve the public.

But deciding to run did not come easily. I was frightened to death. No one I had ever known had run for office — that was something for people with money and time. I have never had either. To me, the most vulnerable among us were never on the winning side. I thought it was time for them to have a voice along with everyone else.

Having never run for office, I didn’t realize that one starts campaigning months before putting his or her name into the hat. Instead, I signed the affidavit and then went to figure out how to run a campaign. It was then I walked square into the two levels of politics operating in Jackson County. The social set, and the one everyone sees in campaigns.

From the social set, people came out of the bushes and trees to have their rings kissed. With few exceptions, they were people who have never run for office and have names the public would be wont to recognize. They, however, have an inordinate influence on elective office. They have money and power, or access to both. Being on the winning side comes easily to them, and losing is something they get even for. To gain their acceptance, I was told by those in the know that I had to coddle them, tell them nice things and build relationships with people of whom they approve.

Fundamentally, I am an egalitarian and believe hierarchies are undemocratic. In addition, I had been a journalist for too long to get down on one knee for anyone, much less someone who got what they got because they held great parties or had money or had earned prestige by brokering power. I can’t say what I don’t mean. I can’t lie to people by treating them one way when I see them and another when I don’t.

So I started at a disadvantage.

Most of the party functionaries had no idea where I came from and reacted with surprise and anger when they found I was running. My friends told me that I needed to play the game if I wanted to go anywhere. But I wanted to be honest and fair. And I damn sure wasn’t going to sell myself out to get anywhere.

So, I did what I always do when faced with obstacles. I was nice. I was respectful. And I went out on my own. Here’s what I discovered:

  1. Anyone can run for an office. All it takes is $50 and a smile. The incumbents, at least at the county, have keys to the courthouse, so get over trying to get the first slot on the ballot.
  2. Running for office is made to look difficult, even impossible for the regular, walking-around person. The social set, as well as those in office, like this. It keeps what they consider the riff-raff (i.e., real people) out of their way.
  3. Most endorsements from political clubs, such as the Committee for County Progress, La Raza, the Women’s Political Caucus and Freedom Inc., are not democratic or fairly come by. Money and connection greases these wheels. No matter how hard I tried to show these people my liberal sensibilities were more in line with their organizations’ goals than my opponent, the money had already passed hands and the deal had already been done. More interesting, several organizations never gave me a chance to speak with them before endorsing a candidate. Among them was the Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus, who never sent me a questionnaire. When I called them, I essentially received a call back saying their decision was already made.
    Naively, I believed the clubs would give me a fair hearing. But the clubs and organizations became the greatest disappointment of the entire process. Club endorsements, with only a few exceptions, are charades, illusions. I say this not because I didn’t get endorsements, but that I never got a hearing at what many in the public believe are fair-minded groups that look out for the public good. That august organizations like the CCP and the Women’s Political Caucus were rigged from the beginning makes me question now, as I should have all along, the credibility of any political club or organization.
    In addition, I learned that elected officials may be dirty, but mostly they are buttons the wealthy and connected push when they want something. These behind-the-scenes masters of the show are not likely to give up their buttons without a fight.
  4. Only a few endorsements weren’t a sham. Kansas City Pride Democrats, for instance, had a very democratic and fair process. It didn’t matter if you were incumbent, “viable candidate,” or how much money you gave them, they were more interested in finding a candidate that reflected their interests and supporting them with advice, money, volunteers and exposure. But Pride is a real exception to the rule.
  5. Never, ever, trust a politician or anyone involved in politics. Period. I found quickly that I couldn’t worry about what others were doing or saying that they would do — because, in the end, words had no meaning except in revealing the speaker’s effort to get to another set of words that meant nothing. I just had to pick up my things and go on with what I was doing.
  6. So, with $50 down and a list of voters from the election board, I started walking. Hundreds of streets, thousands of doors, hundreds and hundreds of people. Countless hours of the best I have ever done. I miss it already.
  7. Going door-to-door to ask for the vote didn’t give me a good idea of how I would do in the election (and I never thought it would). But it was damn fun and I met a lot of great people. Sure, there were a few people who slammed doors in my face, said awful things or were just nasty people. But the vast majority was great. I had countless glasses of lemonade on front porches, spent innumerable hours in front rooms and sitting in porch swings, and discovered my city again. In doing so, I found the love I have for my species is not misplaced.
  8. Standing for office and campaigning, for me, quickly became about listening to people and being their servant more than about besting an opponent. Such esteemed Jackson Countians as Dick Berkley, Leland Shurin, Leonard Graham, Nona Bolling, and George Blackwood mailed and emailed half-truths and slanderous things in the last month of the campaign. They needed to keep their man in office and would do anything, it seems. I kept walking and knocking on doors, kept having faith in people, not in power. Because of this, despite losing the race, I won personally in so many ways I’m still absorbing it all.
  9. Other people gained from me standing up. While I acquired a lot of faith in other people, they also grew and became better people. I never expected that taking this risk would help others the way it has. I recommend it for anyone who wants to make this city a better place.

Addendum:

My campaign cost nearly $13,000. Of this, $3,000 came from political action committees, such as those that support firefighters, carpenters and other political candidates. The rest was from friends, family and people interested in change at county government. Here is what that money bought:

14.400 mail pieces (two mailers, each posted to 7,200 households)
10,000 pieces of introductory literature — called push cards
6,000 sticky notes (attached to push cards with a note when people weren’t at home)
4,000 business cards
3,000 post cards
1,000 yard signs, of which I used almost half
1,000 remittance envelopes
1,000 invites to fundraisers
500 pieces of stationary
500 #10 envelopes with my campaign logo
30 T-shirts for volunteers
6 rolls of 100 first-class stamps
4 fundraisers, a front-yard weenie roast, and a barbeque buffet at Knight’s Bar-BQ
3 bags of pens
2 cases of beer, 4 cases of pop, 4 cases of bottled water, 8 bags of ice,10 bags of potato chips, 200 hot dogs and buns, 3 bottles of ketchup and two of mustard

Outside of yard signs, all that’s left is a few chewed up pens, some hot dogs, and the mustard. And I still owe the printer about $200.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


              
              
                 

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