Campaigning Builds a Skill Most of Us Lack

It doesn’t matter who placed the call and it barely matters what her concern was — the call and the gripe both are that common. She had just returned from a Eugene City Council work session and she was frustrated. It could just as well have been a school board or a county commissioners meeting.

She called me because I “always have an unusual perspective.” I didn’t disappointed her.

“The city councilors are all good people,” she began, “but they don’t know enough about this particular topic to make good decisions.” Again, the topic is not relevant. I’ve heard the same complaint around building codes, tax policies, transportation engineering, noise abatement, and animal control. “I wish there was a way to make them take a class [on the topic at hand] before they ever cast a vote on city policy.”

Then she got to her felt pain. “We’ve done so much work on this topic. We’ve devoted so many hours to it. It’s really hard to see them wave our opinions away, to dismiss them so easily. How can we get them to respect us?”

Hers was a heartfelt and genuine quandary. I confess my response was more rhetorical than her question.

“Have you ever knocked on a hundred strangers’ doors on a Saturday afternoon? I know I haven’t,” I said.

“Me neither,” she replied, unsure where I was going.

“Elected officials have done that, literally,” I said. “In some ways they are doing it all the time — answering emails from people they don’t know, getting quoted in newsletters read by people they’ve never met. Would you agree that’s a skill?”

“I can see that,” she replied.

“Isn’t it a skill we don’t have?”

“Sure.”

“Can we respect them for that skill?” Now she could see where I was going.

We are more likely to see that trait in a negative light. We may admire the hard work involved, but we can’t fathom what would drive somebody to spend their Saturday talking to strangers on their doorsteps.

Just because it’s foreign to us doesn’t mean we can’t respect others for it. Respect is a two-way street, so the best way to get it is to give it first. I know that’s simple to say and hard to do, but it’s true.

Knocking on all those doors teaches someone certain things about this community — and about themselves — that you and I may not know.

They’ve learned to formulate policy positions that accommodate a wide range of opinions. They’ve learned how to make alliances around certain issues to expedite other issues. They’ve learned what matters most deeply to them and to their supporters.

A good politician can be like a tuning fork, quickly finding the frequency that communicates with the most clarity. The best ones can do that without ever betraying their own values and beliefs.

Sometimes they ask the public to weigh in on an issue. Or they survey in private those they consider to be a representative sample. Or they simply follow their conscience, knowing that their constituents will use the ballot box to voice their views.

Most issues we face have at least three dimensions of complexity. Staff and legal counsel can tell them what’s allowed or required. Activists, staff professionals and civic volunteers can weigh in on what may be technically possible, or what other communities have done.

How any particular solution will be viewed by the public — analyzing that political dimension is what our elected officials must do. No amount of technical or regulatory clarity can substitute for anticipating how it will play to the people.

We need our best talent addressing each dimension of any complex problem, respecting what the others have contributed and moving forward together.

The last speech I ever heard Dave Frohnmayer give described how his political campaigns taught him empathy. Learning how “to read a room” also made him a better father, professor, dean, and college president.

He quoted Lyndon Johnson’s complaint about John F. Kennedy’s “brightest and best” technocrats who got us militarily mired in Vietnam: “I wish just one of them had run for dogcatcher once.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs