Saturday, March 17, 2007

The City DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Do We Have What It Takes To
Hold Candidates Accountable?

There are few things that every candidate running for office in the City of St. Charles has in common. Yes they all have two eyes. I’m talking about something beyond the obvious. Give up?

Every single candidate voluntarily signed a clean campaign pledge.

The document’s somewhat verbose heading reads: A Promise To The Public For A Campaign With Integrity. The City Clerk keeps them all on file. I don’t know if a single person has ever looked at them, but like Social Security, I hope it’s there when I need it.

Every candidate promised to offer only “factual” information with regard to themselves and the past records of those in office. They promise that their campaign, including themselves and, perhaps more importantly, those who work in support of them, will not make untrue statements, either verbally or written, about their opponent.

It goes on to read that each candidate pledges not to engage in personal or character attacks in any manner. Seems pretty straightforward and ironclad to me. Much like the prenuptial agreement between Brittany Spears and Kevin Federline.

With such universal agreement this should be the cleanest campaign on record…if, and this is an important if…the voters demand it.

Just above the signature of each candidate for office are the words: “I made these promises to the people of St. Charles.” That’s a pretty solemn vow. It is, in fact, a contract between each of you and those who seek to represent you in local government.
Before you ask, the answer to the question of who enforces these promises is, well you. No one at City Hall will. There is no Department of Personal Responsibility. There are no fines, fees or penalties unless you exact them. There is no referee or judge beyond your own good judgment and sense of smell.

So what do you look for? Few candidates sink to the level today of what I’ll call the bold-faced lie. They prefer to employ one of several variations to the truth.

There is your basic half-truth. Provide only the information you want your audience to have. Leave out the part where you opponent perhaps saved a child from drowning or found a cure for cancer.

Another example of the half-truth tactic would be taking hundreds of hours of footage from meetings and then editing it down to a couple of minutes where an office holder yawns, roll their eyes to the ceiling or perhaps raise their voice. Add some very expensive creative editing, a few words taken completely out of context, some eye of newt and allow to simmer in a black cauldron.

Twisting the truth is a step up from telling half-truths. This takes a little more creativity. If you voted to protect taxpayer money by vigorously defending the city against what you felt was an unwarranted and abusive lawsuit then your opponents will say “Your failed leadership cost the taxpayers excessive legal fees.” Never mind if your defending the suit saved the city over $100 million that the plaintiff wanted.

There is also guilt by association. It doesn’t matter that you had no knowledge of someone else’s troubles. If anyone you ever met did anything wrong, they have a paint brush wide enough to paint you both.

Mudslinging is more like mud wrestling in St. Charles County. Or perhaps it is more like mud volleyball. You know the kind where they dig a three-foot deep hole, fill it with water and expect you to play volleyball while trying not to catch hepatitis. Most campaign literature that begins with the words, “My opponent is…” will probably turn out to be mudslinging. That phrase seldom ends with the words, “…a very nice guy.”

Last minute smear attacks are simply those attacks made in the 11th hour of any campaign. The opponent hopes you won’t have time to answer. It is like a sucker punch. Start by asking yourself simple questions. If this person is as bad as all that or did such and such, why am I only hearing about it a week before the election? Why am I reading about it in a piece of campaign literature, funded by Slovakians For Good Government?

Someone whose name escapes me in the wee hours, once said people get the type of government they deserve. I don’t believe anyone deserves bad government, but I do believe voters need to say enough is enough. I am already sick and tired of the 2008 Presidential Campaign and full-scale mudslinging hasn’t even begun. They’ve barely started kicking sand at each other.

I believe that negative campaigns threaten our democracy by alienating people from wanting to participate in the process. How many people do you know who are willing to have themselves and their families dragged through the mud of a modern campaign? How many simply decide not to vote?

The solution to this problem is simple. Don’t reward negative campaigning.

Make a clean campaign pledge to yourself. Simply resolve to not tolerate last minute political smear campaigns. Don’t reward candidates who place so little value on their own clean campaign pledge.

An old maxim of mine is that people are no better at being elected officials than they are at being candidates. What you see is usually what you get.

And if there really is a Slovakians For Good Government Committee…I was only kidding.