Wednesday, October 24, 2012

7 Attributes to look for in Local Elected Officials

A handful of people have suggested or encouraged me to run for City Council in Durham NC, where I live, now that my friend Mike Woodard, in whose Ward I live is most likely moving on to the North Carolina State Senate.

These well-intended folks have citied some attributes that I’m flattered to think someone may believe I have, including name recognition from an apparent poll that may or may not have been scientifically conducted recently by some individuals.

Even though those who have prodded me are not close acquaintances or friends, I always feel a twinge of guilt when the subject is broached.  Many of my reasons for not being interested seem selfish --such as not liking long or repetitive meetings or taking late night phone calls.

I’m infinitely more patient in my early 60s than at any time in my life, but I'm still not known to “suffer fools gladly,” to borrow a phrase from the Christian Apostle Paul.  I also promised myself when I retired several years ago that I would pursue very different interests and challenges and so far it has been very rich and rewarding.

During my recently-concluded nearly 40-year career in community destination marketing on behalf of three different communities, more than 20 years of which involved standing up for Durham, I had a front-row seat and almost daily contact with many of the finest local elected officials one could ever hope to meet and, of course, even a few who were unfortunate exceptions.

Far too many people are motivated by ego to run for public office and I probably qualify in that regard (smile.)  I can also easily run down a long list of much better qualified and younger prospects.

But rather than listing why I would not be a good candidate (one is that I am an Independent with no party apparatus – City Council candidates run on a non-partisan basis, but party affiliation inevitably enters into the endorsement and get-out-the-vote process,) let me list some of the things I think should be considered minimum requirements for any candidate:

  • An insatiable curiosity and love of reading, not just for interest but for learning and content.  Far too many elected officials don’t read and local officials are required to read and digest a lot.


  • A proven aversion to special interests, lobbyists and rent-seekers.  Far too many elected officials are addicted to the adrenalin-fix that comes with the bump and shove of politics.


  • An inclination to value questions more than answers and to think strategically and conceptually.  As Duke-based behavioral economist Dan Ariely once wrote -  “We tend to value answers over questions, because answers allow us to take action while questions mean we need to keep thinking.  Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.”


  • A grasp of, loyalty to and respect, affection and patience for the almost temporal values, traits and strengths inherent in Durham’s personality including social justice.  Durham residents deserve this at the very least.


  • An intolerance for Disneyification as much as for blight and neglect.  A keen respect for the value of green infrastructure and clean air and water is vital to quality of place and social mobility and critical as part of any cost/benefit analysis.


  • A proven willingness to proactively stand up for Durham and its identity whenever and wherever it is not given its due including touch points at co-owned assets such as the airport and in any partnerships or collaborations across the region or the state.


  • A strong disposition for evidence-based decision-making, measurement metrics and the unfailing use of benchmarking.  We don’t elect people for their opinions but rather for their governance.

At this stage of my life I am just not interested in running for or holding elected office but I am grateful for those who are and I believe there is no more important position than elected officials at the very local level.  It is a thankless job, but we deserve the best.

Often, however, these are not the ones who desire it the most.

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