Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill got it right when he made the statement that "all politics is local."
O’Neill was referring to the ability of a politician to appease voters back home by understanding their desires and following them, or making them understand why not. A politician could be a big deal in the nation’s capital, but if people back home didn’t vote for him or her, the rest didn’t matter.
I was privileged to moderate debates on successive nights last week in my hometown of Benton for truly local races — those for alderman or alderwoman in Benton and Bryant and races for Saline County offices.
It’s refreshing to see first-timers and veterans mix it up on issues near and dear to them. In one case, a dad of a developmentally disabled child was running to make playgrounds and parks more handicap accessible; another was concerned about water rates to the point he was willing to cut funding to local parks.
A theme, if there was one, is that nobody wants to raise taxes, although one candidate said he wouldn’t rule out a way to provide some new and needed service to local residents if the money could not be found elsewhere.
The format did not allow standing and pointing fingers at opponents, as did the recent presidential brouhaha, but it did allow minimal back-and-forth.
In one race, the challenger said he was running to implement transparency in government spending and would put the county’s checkbook online for all to see. The incumbent said such actions were not under the purview of the office. The challenger responded that the same officeholder in an adjacent county had already implemented such a system.
A candidate, whose outburst at a city council meeting a few years back was documented in a YouTube video, said he had apologized to the target of his angry words and held up an email to the crowd, purportedly showing that his apology had been accepted. He was a different person now, the candidate said.
The local access TV station that has an agreement with the local cable company was there to document the proceedings and was one of the debate sponsors, along with the local newspaper. A newspaper reporter was there to put it all in writing in the next day’s edition.
The biggest disappointment was that relatively few people showed up to hear what the candidates had to say. And, the local cable company is hardly dominant in the day when competition includes two major satellite providers and the phone company.
The silver lining is that some will see the debates on TV (or maybe in YouTube videos) in the days between now and the election and others will read accounts in the local paper. Open discussions may help some local voters decide which candidate to support.
Just as in the presidential race, many will simply vote "D" or "R" or, in local races, for some candidate they know or have "heard about" from a friend. That’s marginally better, I suppose, than not voting.
The truth is voters need to be better informed. They need to read — not just biased reports on candidate websites or features in party-sponsored publications or campaign literature. They need to read reports by responsible journalists, do a little research, show up at candidate forums and make decisions on more than a recommendation or a letter beside a candidate’s name.
If it’s more responsible officeholders that voters want, they need to be responsible on their end first.
Dennis A. Byrd is chief of the Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail is email@example.com and he’s on Twitter @dennisbyrd.