Meet and Greet

Creative Commons photo courtesy of the Philadelphia City Council

While I love teaching students about politics, there is nothing more exhilarating than actually working on a political campaign.

I have worked four local races and have discovered this is where the action is. People really care about who will represent them at city hall and in the state capital. Their issues are always personal, and, especially at the local level, nearby.

Sure, they care about immigration and health care and jobs, but they are mostly worried about how acts by public officials will impact their block, favorite restaurant or doctor’s office. Will they fix the potholes or put in a new light? If there has been a rise in property crimes, people ask pointed questions about how it’s going to be addressed and they expect answers.

I realized this all the more when I switched hats recently and attended a candidate’s forum simply as a concerned citizen. About 250 fellow residents joined me at this 90-minute weeknight meeting where five candidates were vying for two seats and the mayor was running unopposed.

I could go into the specifics of the debate, but I’d rather focus on the process, not the particulars.

The mayor was the Voice of Reason. He’s run our fine city for two decades and knows issues inside and out. It’s telling that no one is competing for his seat.

One city council member is running for re-election. The local paper calls him Mr. Insider, so I figure that’s good enough for us as well. Another candidate has been a local volunteer for decades, so the title of the Historian fits her nicely.

The remaining three candidates are outsiders, but all of them have law enforcement background, so some distinctions will be necessary. One has held various high-stress positions earning him the moniker Air-SWAT. Another talked about her pride as a parent and law enforcement officer, so we’ll call her Mom Cop. The last one earned himself the nickname Mr. Transparency because that’s the biggest issues for him in this race.

The opening comments were pretty innocuous, until Mr. Transparency drew first blood by protesting that the more well-known candidates were allowed to have prepared comments but others were not. This seemed like a dicey move politically until members of the audience offered up boisterous applause.

Attracting the right businesses to our city was a strong point of contention. The insiders claimed things were running smoothly, while the outsiders countered that it was very difficult to get businesses started in town because of the challenges of working with city officials. Air-SWAT complained that the number of businesses we have in our town is irrelevant if we find ourselves leaving the city for a nice meal, for example. Mr. Insider said we have plenty of fine restaurants in town. I have to agree with Air-SWAT on this one, as when my wife and I talk about going out on the weekend, we often are frustrated by the local options from which we have to choose.

The only point where I wanted to say something was when they were asked about getting teens involved in the city. While they danced around the issue, mentioning this program and that, I whispered to the school board member sitting next to me that maybe they needed to be reminded of the 1,400 or so students at the local high school where I teach who are required to do community service hours as part of graduation. If only half of them got involved in city groups and activities, the impact would be far-reaching.

I also had to stifle a laugh when they were asked about diversity in a town that is about one-third Latino and 10% Asian and the best answers the five white candidates and one Latino had were that we had salsa dancing, food trucks and celebrations for Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year. Up until that moment I, who have lived in this town for 17 years, knew about none of them other than the dance classes at the city’s recreation center.

The outsiders had their best moment when speaking of a rise in petty crime in the city. With their law enforcement background, they offered specific solutions to this growing concern.

The conversation about the metro train coming through our city was perhaps the most insightful as it sounded like one out of the late 19th century and yet it spoke to our future as a city. They spoke of increased traffic combined with increased business. Air-SWAT, Mom Cop and Mr. Insider liked the idea on balance, but Mr. Transparency said the station location was a poor one. The Historian joked that since it would take another decade to be completed, she hoped she would be alive long enough to ride the train.

The only person against it completely was the Voice of Reason. He said that the station, which will cost millions of dollars, will have a negative impact no matter where it was built. His preference was that the train pass right through to the next stop. While such a move would not be very progressive, it might just be the right call.

I have spent a lot of time talking about issues that matter to the 30-to-40-thousand people that call our suburb home, but I would contend these types of issues matter to us all, or they should. We complain about the problems in our town or hamlet, yet we often do little to fix things.  When it comes to voting, in an off-year, spring election like the one that is about to take place, it’s not uncommon for two-thirds of registered voters to just stay home. But after we cast our ballots, we still need to meet those in power and voice our concerns if we ever hope to fix them.

For a society that would rather take to social media to whine and complain, I think it’s time to go back to the old-fashioned practice of the meet-and-greet.


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