Maturity or Vanity: Changing the Politics of Land Use and Sustainability

To me it’s strange that, in Seattle, we spend time arguing about whether political change is the first step to changes in policy. Suggesting that we oust some City Council members and replace them with a pro-growth coalition, for example, is a non-starter.

And then there is the ingrown quality of our local politics: most of us rub elbows with local politicians and we don’t want to be rude by challenging their policies. Rather than worrying what our elected officials think about us, they should be worried about what we think about them.

Here’s a personal example. I am a recovering politician. I spent the decade of my 20s aspiring for public office. Anyone who knew me then saw a person who, while ideologically principled, was driven by looking for political opportunity. This isn’t a bad thing. We need smart, principled people to run for office.

Politics, in practice, is a methodical grind punctuated by moments of exhilaration, but also embarrassing rhetorical contortions, and disappointment. Not surprisingly, when my moment came I found it really was about raising money, and going door to door like a bible salesman trying to persuade total strangers, on their front lawns, to vote for me. In my tiny little race (total funds raised by all candidates was less than $100,000) the lofty policy discussions and changing the world became about turning out people’s pockets for money to pay for mail, signage, and robocalls.

Very early on in my efforts I got a note from a local leader I had worked with and admired.

3/17/02

Dear Roger,

I haven’t been ignoring your requests for you election campaign. I’ve been trying to figure out what I wan to say about it. So, here goes.

I like you Roger. I can see you are very smart, that you are an astute observer of personal and community dynamics and that you really care about the people around you and the place we collectively inhabit. These are all characteristics that I would like to see in our elected officials and civic “servants.”

Having said that, though, I think you lack a level of maturity that would make you a good candidate right now. Having worked with you, I’ve seen the way you can talk behind people’s backs, make promises you can’t keep, and in general have too great a sense of your self-importance. I say these things to you because I believe that you can hear them and do something with them. I think these characteristics are a sign of someone who is professionally advanced for someone as you as you are and at the same time relatively inexperienced in terms of life and personal/professional discovery.

A good legislator (I think) would be one who can listen to people with less judgement about people, or at least the ability to see their own judgments and still hear what’s valuable and what individuals are saying underneath what might sound trivial, uneducated, or whatever.

I want to support your learning and growing Roger which is why I’ve included a donation to your campaign but I’m not comfortable putting my name on the “endorsement list.”

Best of luck,

An important reminder from a life in politics

Now, at first, you might think this was dispiriting or hurt my feelings. There is certainly a tinge of resentment running through the note’s muted admiration of where I was relative to my age and experience. But he was absolutely right: I did lack maturity. It took some considerable courage for this man to write this note to me. Courage because so often people hedge their bets, wanting not to personally offend someone running for fear of the consequences later. And, like it or not, candidates in this country are not awarded a stint in office because of their maturity; they win because they want office, because they need office.

Sometimes, only sometimes, the desperate desire for power and to be seen coincides with maturity and intelligence. But our tests for office aren’t maturity, intelligence, or experience; rather, winners are chosen because of their persistence, desire for power and their ability to establish symbiotic relationships with varied interests who need a vote, or a seat of power. It’s about who needs it most.

My personal trip through the political life has taught me that while the truth can hurt, it is important that we share it with those who aspire for office. When we fear politicians we aren’t doing them or ourselves a favor. Politicians need to hear the unvarnished truth. I needed it then, and I appreciated it. All of our aspiring David’s need at least one Nathan.

Nathan and David: “Thou art the man!”

I still read the note from time to time as a measuring stick for myself. Am I mature yet? All elected officials should have a stained, dog-eared note from a supporter telling them the truth, and, perhaps, challenging their motives. As a recovering politician, I think my maturity and life experience have started to exceed my sense of entitlement for office. Sadly, when it comes to politics, there tends to be an inverse relationship between  maturity and the pathology of power seeking; the more mature one gets, the less one needs office.

When it comes to land use and sustainability, we can talk and talk and talk about the science and the economics, but if we are ever to make the change we need it will start in the emotional and irrational world of politics. That political change must start, not with a tome about the technical elements of climate change (we all know how that works already!), but, perhaps, a simple note to an ambitious politician we like telling her she is wrong and advising her to change. If we can’t make our elected officials—especially the ones we like—uncomfortable or turn them out of office because they are making bad decisions, we are doomed.

So the next time you get one of those remit envelopes from a local politician who is asking for campaign cash, try filling the envelope with some honesty.

The sad but ironic truth is that, in Seattle, when the right thing doesn’t happen, it isn’t because of the vanity of our politicians, but the vanity of their followers.

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One Response to Maturity or Vanity: Changing the Politics of Land Use and Sustainability

  1. Pingback: Prayer or Politics: How Do We Get a Sustainable City? | Seattle's Land Use Code

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