It can be invigorating to take a “wipe ‘em out” stance in politics. That kind of pitchfork posture gets easy cheers. And seeing that “dump all incumbents” military dump truck parked at the Madison County courthouse square is a reminder of an old political truth: anger sells.
And people are truly angry these days. If you want a place to put your anger, there are so many options. The “times like these” economic talk is incessant. An ocean is being ruined. The world feels like it’s teetering in a shaky way.
The blame for our ills is vast and intense.
Surely the above headline will be perceived as an endorsement of the three incumbents in our local BOC races. That’s not the intent. Actually, what I believe is this: look at each person, see if A is better than B, or vice versa. Look at the issues that matter to you. Try to get a read on how each candidate will address these issues. Remember, these elections are small enough that there’s a good chance you can catch a candidate on the phone. You may think a challenger is better suited to serve you than an incumbent. Or you may think the opposite is true.
But generalities rooted in anger — such as the “dump all incumbents” theme — are not beneficial to society, particularly when numbers don’t back up the pitchfork.
While fiscal turmoil plagues many governments today, thankfully, that’s not been the case for the past two years in our county government. The county government has shaved considerable operating costs over the past two years — from a $15.1 million budget in 2008 to $13.3 million this year — while not raising taxes. Madison County is operating with a surplus rather than a shortfall these days. And unlike many surrounding counties, Madison County is not burdened by heavy debt. There has been some pretty solid decision making financially over the past two years. Of course, one reason the county has avoided being saddled with debt is because the county backed off the jail expansion project at the right time.
Local political activist Marion “Hoss” Cartwright points out that the proposed financing for that jail expansion project would have left a lot to be desired. And many cities and counties around the country have found out the hard way that their financing plans for major projects included some painful fine print.
Cartwright is well known both for his money and his love of political hardball. Depending on who you talk to, he’s either a truth-to-power good guy or shameless peddler of bile and misinformation. He ran for the BOC and lost in 2008, but he has seemed even more of a presence in this year’s county elections, though he isn’t seeking office himself.
Cartwright has spent a ton of money fighting the county on the Sam Bruce Road issue. When driving down that road, I can’t help but think it could be closed and no one would be the worse for it. It’s in terrible shape. It needs a lot more work than just a bridge. However, I also know that I’d like thru-traffic closed on my own road. I would really love that, no more speeders. But that won’t and shouldn’t happen. My personal preference is not the determining factor on what happens on the road by our house. If taxpayers use that road, or want to use it, then it serves a public function, whether I like it or not. So, I can understand the county’s determination in fighting to keep Sam Bruce Road open. As a principle, you don’t want one citizen dictating road policy, even if they have the money to hurt you.
But then you have to ask: how much money do you spend defending a principle?
The Sam Bruce Road issue has been one of the top political issues in this county in recent years. Of course, another one was the conflict between the county commissioners and the board of assessors (BOA). The background on this matter is extremely dense. There are so many chapters to the saga. I don’t have the space to detail it. But as the entire tax assessment process seemed to grind to a halt amid political tensions, commissioners faced some tough options: A.) get rid of the entire BOA, B.) keep some members and get rid of others, C.) keep them all. Ultimately, I would have picked option B, but the board went with option A. Had the BOC taken option C, keeping all BOA members, they would have faced criticism for not taking action to remedy the BOA’s political gridlock and the long-standing tax assessment troubles. As it is, the board took option A, replacing the five-member board with a three-member group. Tax bills are scheduled to go out on time in 2010, which hasn’t happened in years. Appeals are down. (Of course, I’d also note that the state cap on assessment increases has certainly had an effect on the number of appeals.)
All this said, the feelings from the BOA action and the Sam Bruce Road issue still run deep today and carry over into this year’s elections. These are long-standing grievances.
My feeling about grievance politics is this: a grievance can be a positive motivator in the short term, but if it stretches on too long, a grievance — even if it is 100 percent justified — becomes a political liability, a way to dismiss someone’s arguments: “oh, he’s just mad about thus and such.” Grievances can also cloud clear thinking.
Apply this to the home. Think about the married couple with kids. A relationship is a complicated thing. People can get wild-eyed and irrational. They can get so caught up in being right that they can’t see the bigger picture and what is right on a deeper level, not just the argument of the day. For instance, whatever bickering you do, at some point, you have to come back together, let go of your grievance, make things better for your spouse and children. If you can’t do this, you’re hurting your family.
I think the same about politicians. If you can’t let go of your grievance, realize that your own hurt is not the ultimate matter at hand, then you don’t belong in office. The politics of anger should not control our families. It should not control our governments.
I hope this year's winners will take that to heart.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.