3.06.2010

Why do we have such a lack of inspiring candidates for DC offices?

I was reading a bit about the whole Eric Massa resignation hubub, and noticed all of the local government officials that might be running for the open seat. This got me thinking about how elected officials in the District government have little to aspire to. For those on the Council, the only higher elected office would be mayor. For the mayor, that's the end of the line. Now, of course, not everyone in a city government wants to run for statewide office or Congress, but at least the potential is there. I have to wonder how that complete lack of potential affects things here in the District.

Just to be clear, of course,  DC is not the only big city in the United States with corruption problems. Chicago, Detroit and others face scandals on par with or above what we have here. However, what we also have in DC seems to be a complete lack of a field of qualified and enthusiastic candidates for political office. We have a mayor who has been implicated in all sorts of unethical and possibly illegal contracting scandals, we have a Councilmember who admits to funneling city money to his girlfriends, we have other Councilmembers who are out of touch and do nothing. We have all of this, and we are in an election year, yet we've barely got a campaign for any of these offices going. The "best" hope for unseating the mayor is the Council chair, who has his own ethics problems and isn't at all excited about running.

So here's where the question comes up, is it difficult to attract people interested in public office because of the barriers to entry and the lack of higher office? All campaigns are expensive, but for someone serious about starting a political life, running for the DC Council wouldn't necessarily be impossible. But, it's sort of the end of the line. If you dream of eventually serving in Congress, you absolutely would never live in DC or run for a DC elected office. What would you do? Serve on the DC Council for a few years and then move across the river to Virginia or out to Maryland? Yeah, I'm sure your political resume will get you far over there. What we end up with is a situation where the best you can hope for is making connections to the business world for when you eventually leave office. If you are a lawyer, you can probably get a job with a law firm. Maybe you can consult.

Maybe I'm on the wrong track here, but I think this does have a non-trivial chilling effect on the pool of potential candidates. I don't like to say that I want more ambition out of politicians, but sometimes it might not be the worst thing. Aspiring to higher office means more drive to get things done, and more reason to be squeaky clean while doing it. The scandals we see coming from Barry and Fenty are the sorts that can sink a gubernatorial or senatorial campaign. I could definitely see in some other city, a young upstart sweeping in to Ward 8 trying to turn things around, aiming to then run for state legislature or Congress. With ambition, a candidate might be willing to take more risks, and challenge the status quo more. Instead, we have nothing. We have a "why bother" attitude. We've got one "federal" office, a non-elected representative. Not exactly a blockbuster position.

So what sort of options do we have here, short of throwing our hands up and abolishing the idea of elected office for the DC government? Well, of course, giving the delegate to Congress a vote might help. We'd at least have something a bit more important to aspire to.

All of this, of course, is just speculation. What do you think? Do you think there's anything to this? Do you think we could attract better candidates for political office if there was somewhere to go after the Council?

14 comments:

  1. absolutely! you make an astute point that the best that a lot of elected officials can aspire to is using the political office to further their business career. while many members of the national house and senate clearly have the same aspirations, the fact that it's really the only one for DC pols just feels sleazier.

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  2. Umm, DC sucks. Maybe that has something to do with it?

    Let me phrase it another way: The DC government is a farce, and everyone knows it. That is why only clowns run for office in DC.

    There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

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  3. I agree, and also think lack of state / federal leadership opportunities contributes to adolescent apathy. that is one less category of something you can "be when you grow up".

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  4. You make an interesting point. But at the same time, how does greater political aspiration motivate people in the first place? What, in the end, are the goals of running for public office? How many people who were once city mayors go on to become senators or state representatives?

    In an ideal world, the goal would be to improve the city/state/country in which you live.

    In reality, within DC and without, the goal of most public offices at the level of mayor or above seems to be enriching yourself and your friends. Sure, as a senator in a whole state you would have a bigger pot of money available to do that with. But in DC, because there's no scrutiny from the nonexistent state legislature, and the federal government doesn't really care that much as long as their trash gets picked up, it's actually a great place to be corrupt and get away with it easily.

    So while I think your point is valid in some ways, it assumes that "greater political aspiration to do more good" is a primary motivating factor for people who might be mayor of DC or any city. I think that's not necessarily true - in actuality a lot of people who run for these office see it as an opportunity to get rich and make your friends rich, as well as riding the adrenaline rush that comes with power.

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  5. I think it's because the cream of the crop who come to this city as transients aspire to work for the federal government, not small-time city government where things like online degrees are considered the norm.

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  6. There's an awful lot of research out there dealing with surveys of local politicians and their motivations - typically they're folks that are inspired to work for their community, and typically have less interest in going on to higher levels of government.

    That said, DC is a bigger city - really big cities may offer the prospect of higher office to a former mayor or councilman, but I don't really think its fair to compare DC to New York, Chicago, Houston or LA.

    I think there might be a hint of truth to what you're saying, but I think it has more to do with the fact that the District just hasn't managed to produce much of anyone of real notability in a loooong time. Partly because the schools here suck. In terms of politicians, there's a nasty culture of cronyism that's gonna take a lot of effort and significant amount of time to unwind. I sometimes wonder if we might not be better off with a weak mayor/strong council/city manager approach...

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  7. I have to wonder if it partially comes from the other end too - there are no lower offices to "train" aspiring politicians. It used to be that everyone who wanted to be on the Council ran for school board, but now that's gone.

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  8. Solid point as well about the feeder system... maybe if the ANC's had some real authority over something...

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