Local Democracy: An April Fool Who Believes

Local Democracy: An April Fool Who Believes

One of the shortest and mildest post-war recessions had just ended (officially, anyway). The unemployment rate stood at 6.8%, and would shortly slip down a notch before beginning a slow but persistent rise through the election year that followed. That rising unemployment rate, and the larger sense that the economy was somehow changed and not for the better, would give a relatively unknown governor an issue with which to defeat the incumbent president that the pundits and pollsters said could not be defeated.
Gloria Estefan’s Coming Out of the Dark was soaring to the top of the charts. Kids and teens sported slap bracelets, women with long hair, scrunchies.
I sported a moustache, but no beard, and hair that was blond, relatively long (by today’s cropped standards) and wavy.
The Gulf War had ended only a month earlier (We didn’t call it the “first” Gulf War because, back then, it was the only Gulf War) with Saddam Hussein’s army in tatters and his dreams of expansion obliterated.
With appropriate pomp and ceremony, my wife and I stood up and walked to center stage. Carol held out a Bible. I placed the palm of my left hand on its cover, raised my right hand, and promised to uphold the Constitution and laws of the nation, the state of Florida, and the city charter.
So began my first day in elected municipal office, 25-years ago, April 1, 1991. Yes, it really was April Fool’s Day.
The eight years that followed were tremendously busy, tremendously challenging, a lot of fun, often frustrating, and frequently very rewarding. For the first couple of years, I tried out different politician personas (I still blush to remember the arrogant and downright stupid things I did). I struggled to master the intricacies of the city budget, water treatment, solid waste contracts, effective policing, firefighter labor rules, neighborhood revitalization, and economic development . . . among many, many other things. I sat through interminable public hearings on rezonings and land use changes and, as an MPO board member, transportation plans. I heard hundreds of petitioners and protesters exaggerate the virtues as well as the vices of proposals to allow a house to be larger than was otherwise allowed, a building to be taller, or a road to be wider.
I met glory-seekers and sycophants and powerbrokers aplenty. I met fools and brutes and, yes, a few truly, truly crazy people.
And I met some of the most amazing, courageous, good-hearted, caring, self-sacrificing people I have ever had the privilege to know.
Some were “ordinary” citizens who simply cared about their neighborhood, or their neighbor, or an old building, or their local school. And they really did care (though they often were accused of having other agendas).
Some were professionals who served the citizenry as public servants on the staff of cities, counties or state agencies. Others were professionals who represented interests before the council, people who understood the bounds of propriety, fought hard for their clients, respected disagreement, and were gracious in defeat as well as in victory. Being a “lobbyist” is not an inherently bad thing, whatever popular culture might suggest to the contrary.
Quite a number were elected officials, especially municipal officials, who put up with all that I, too, put up with for the sake of making their communities better.
Many of these outstanding people were people I fought with, or who fought with me (it wasn’t always a mutual contest). But they played fair in the give and take over interests, beliefs, evidence and opinion.
When I found my bearings and understood my role – sometime advocate, sometime analyst, sometime judge – I was able to play fair, too, and, ultimately at least, to play fairly well.
The result, when everything came together just right (as it sometimes did), was governing as service to citizens, as protection and promotion of the rights of all, as fostering and preserving opportunities for each resident, business owner and visitor to develop their talents and achieve their form of success.
Call that result democracy at its best . . . what Aristotle called “polity.”
Looking back on that April Fool’s Day 25-years ago, I’m grateful. Grateful that I was foolish enough to seek office, grateful that my wife and kids supported my foolishness, grateful to have found enough voters who liked this fool best of the bunch, grateful that I have met so many others foolish enough to try to make it work.
Call us all fools who believe. And be glad we’re around!

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