When he said it, you could have heard a pin drop, and it changed my political views forever.
It was Day 1 of my dream job, the thing I’d aspired to since I was 14 years old, and suddenly I felt like throwing up.
“The next election cycle begins now.”
It was the first caucus of an incoming class of Democratic members of the 106th Congress. The man standing at the front of the room was House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who was laying down the first law of Washington, especially to all the freshmen in the room. The 1998 mid-terms had just concluded 10 days earlier and many of those new members now carried staggering campaign debt.
I was taking notes alongside Congressman-elect Marion Berry, my new boss, and the congressman-elect from Arkansas’ First Congressional District. We emerged victoriously, but with $200,000 of our own debt. As good as winning a long campaign felt and as ready as we were to do the job, it was hard catching your breath with six-figure campaign debt on your shoulders. And now, the big boss just said the new election cycle is already underway. This all means the first thing on your agenda is going back home and raising money again. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was giving the very same speech just down the hall to his caucus.
This is the message at the heart of party politics. Stay in power. Not serve the people.
There was a time in life when I was knee-deep in Arkansas party politics. My family, for as many generations back as I knew, was made up of blue-dog Democrats. So, I figured I was a Democrat, too. We were teachers and farmers, and at the time Democrats told us they represented our interests.
That made Republicans the bad guys because clearly when there are two sides, one is bad, the other good, right?
That’s what everyone watching from the outside would have us believe. The few Arkansas Republicans there were 40 years ago believed the same of us.
Democrats? Bad people practically without morals or conscience.
We’ve permitted it to evolve to this – a good versus evil mentality. And the further truth is that the parties in power want us to believe this. It’s in their best interest because if someone is evil, there is conflict, and conflict means you take sides, and sides are good for disunity.
Ironically, unity is not the political objective in the United States of America.
Fifteen years later, I stopped believing in the political system and affiliations and labels thereabouts. Maybe I moved, or maybe it was the party ideology, but the Democrats evolved too far left for my mid-40s thinking. Left with what I believed was no other choice at the time, I decided to become a Republican, but it was just about then when Republicans began using things like “nuclear options” and holding up Supreme Court votes that stifled the very government they asked to represent. Today, I’m without a political home. And that’s okay. I’m not much for labels these days anyway.
Now, why am I telling you this story? Because in the undercurrent of life in this incredible Ozark region where the most decent people in the world live and work and invest the very best of themselves for a better way of life, we have a problem related to it all.
We don’t really talk much about it because we like the image of being that peaceful place with good people. But politically, we are as divided as anywhere you’ll find.
How do I know this?
It’s the eve of the political season here. We’ll have preferential party primaries in May followed by mid-term elections in November. As some local public officials retire and move on to other things, those who’ve been waiting in the party ranks are now making announcements to run for local offices such as state senator or representative, county judge, sheriff, justice of the peace, and more. One of the first public strategies these people make is walking into the newspaper office and declaring candidacy. This is the first step in getting the word out that you’re putting your name on the ballot.
And consistently with candidates this year and for the first time ever, many are reluctant, even afraid, of declaring a party affiliation for fear of what others may think.
I’ve asked several why they choose to participate in a system they already believe is broken and lined with disunity. Consistently, their paraphrased response is this:
“Because that’s the system we have, and you can’t get elected outside of it.”
Not true. There is a choice. It may not be an easy choice, but there is one, and this newspaper editorialized about it years ago.
We have non-partisan races in city government, school boards, and the judicial system. If we’ve reached a point where we’re so ashamed of party affiliation, it’s time to lose them in county government as well. Besides, national party ideologies have no bearing whatever on decisions about things like county roads, jails, and other important infrastructure issues.
It’s time we had a county government free from all the entanglements of irrelevant political parties. Those labels don’t define us.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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