Confessions of a Political Convert

(Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent, March 30, 1989)

Several months ago, David Hardy, former staff assistant to former Supervisor David Yager, wrote a provocative piece about his experiences in county government. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Santa Barbara without adding to the archive of former staff assistants.

You learn a lot working for a state politician, or for that matter any politician. Good things, like how to light a fire under a bureaucrat’s bottom. Weird things, like the inverse relationship between the number of agencies that manage something — like toxic waste — and the competency with which the something is actually managed. And disillusioning things, like who in public service are the publicity hogs, the intellectual lightweights, and the insincere glad-handlers. (I may move back to this town, so I’d rather not list them here. If you want to know, catch me on the street).

You learn useful aphorisms. For example, it’s been said that if you weren’t a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re still one at thirty, you have no head. My corollary is that you have to believe in socialism to work in government, but if you expect socialism to work, you’ve never worked in government. The inefficiencies are maddening, the responsiveness impossibly slow, the paperwork often absurd, the pay pour, and the customers generally thankless. All that said, I’d like to see every able-brained citizen drafted tor two years of mandatory public service, if for no other reason than it would give everyone a marginal understanding of the role and limitations of government and the great importance that it serves in keeping capitalism subservient to democracy and not vice versa.

You learn to love those keystone bureaucrats who know their jobs and the system so well they can fix a tax mistake over the phone or cut a check in a day. You learn to take the accuracy of media reporting with a grain of salt, even if your boss treats every news story as a career maker or breaker. When a campaign comes around, you learn about the inevitable tension between the campaign staff that pushes the candidate away from policy and toward publicity, and the legislative staff that watches in horror as they man or woman they know and love says some of the most unimaginably inane things. (I am reminded of an incident during the last days of a recent congressional campaign when, while canvassing voters in Thrifty Drug Store, a popular candidate was asked by an obviously devoted Christian how he felt about Jesus. His immediate reply: “I support him.”)

But perhaps most important, you learn that the person you work for, the legislator, the politician, the candidate, leads a dog-tough life. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t one that most sensible people would ever want to consider. Four days a week they live in Sacramento where they are badgered, taunted, and exalted on alternate hours. Three days a week, they’re back in the district, attending rubber-chicken luncheons, handing out an endless supply of resolutions to people they don’t know and meeting with every self-important special-interest group that has a mailing list. All this for a measly $40,816 a year, about half the salary that a first-year attorney can make at a New York law firm.

If our state legislators sometimes appear schizophrenic, it’s only because they accurately reflect the collective public conscious. One year the public passes Proposition 4, limiting the growth of government. The next, they’re complaining about the quality of public education, inadequate environmental regulation, and the lack of funding for AIDS research — all services provided by the state. They want tough laws but don’t want to pay for prisons. What’s a legislator to do?

The diversity of issues a state legislator much be able to respond to is overwhelming, nearly as overwhelming as the diversity of constituent problems that come to their offices. Today it is a head-injured patient who is being bumped through the nursing-home circuit. Then it is someone who favors increased gun control and wants to know every bill that’s been proposed for the past ten years. Then someone whose tax return is late because they were serving time in state prison. Then someone who wants grizzly bears reintroduced to California. It goes on and on.

But knowing it isn’t loving it. When I started working for Gary Hart two years, I had never worked in a political campaign. I didn’t think about state politics very often, except in a limited sense of following specific environmental issues, and when I did, I didn’t think very well of the profession or the professionals.

With Gary as a rare exception, I still don’t. Politics at the state level is more about getting elected than it is about solving important public policy issues. Sacramento is a statesman’s nightmare: shallow and unimaginative thinking, problem dodging, and showmanship aimed at press coverage rather than legislative substance.

Take the issue of insurance. After years of deadlock in the state legislature, the issue finally found its way to the voters. Proposition 103, passed last November, is a good example of what happens when lawmakers avoid their responsibilities to make tough decisions: out of frustration and confusion, the general public votes to pass any measure that appears to do something, even if the something it does makes little sense.

Or the issue of toxic reduction. Nearly everyone agrees that the state needs to take a more aggressive role in encouraging businesses and households to reduce their volume of toxic waste. Only one group, the California Public Interest Research Group, is promoting a platform to reduce wastes, and the proposal has some serious shortcomings. No one in the state legislature is working on the issue because only a few legislators understand the problem, and no one wants to step out and advocate the tough and costly steps that need to be taken to reduce toxic wastes. More important, the governor isn’t working on this issue because ideology has prevented him from leading instead of vetoing on this and many other tough public policy issues. Don’t look to either the executive or legislative branches of state government to address this issues; expect it on an upcoming ballot.

All this said, I am not a committed political convert. For the rest of my life, I will volunteer in political campaigns, give money to candidates, write letters, call legislators’ offices, and get involved as often and as deeply in the political process as I can. Why? Because I now understand how important politics can be in shaping public policy when those rare windows of opportunity open for meaningful social change. I understand how much difference one politician — a Gary Hart, for example — can make in the legislative process. More important, I’ve seen how important one individual can be in a political organization, either in helping a good candidate get elected or in helping them develop meaningful public policy.

Politics is no longer something distant. It’s actually as real as the Angry Poodle Barbecue. And, like the barbecue, though it’s not always nice to see, it is something you or I can effect. We avoid doing so only if we allow our tomorrows to be limited by our yesterdays.