Disillusioned by Presidential Politics? Get Involved on Your Local Level, Where Real Good Can Be Achieved

If you're disillusioned with electoral politics, I don't blame you, but there's something you can do closer to home.
Publish date:
July 28, 2016

The first time I heard a convention roll call vote was in 1992, when I took over the radio in our ancient Volvo sedan to tune in to the DNC and listen to the delegates nominate Bill Clinton. Later that year, my father went as Bill Clinton for Halloween, complete with saxophone. In many ways, I mark that summer night tootling down Highway One as the moment when I became obsessed with politics.

On Tuesday, I perched on my porch railing with my laptop to listen to a very different roll call. While the kittens used me like a jungle gym and the church bell struck off the hours, I watched the Democrats nominate Secretary Hillary Clinton. I'm not a particularly emotional person, but when Bernie Sanders' older brother stepped up to cast his vote, I cried with him.

It's okay to have complicated feelings about Secretary Hillary Clinton. I certainly do. But that roll call was a historic moment to watch: The first time a major political party nominated a woman. I'm glad that I was there for that. I hope that twenty-four years from now, a young person writes an article that begins with a memory a lot like this one, but with a different Clinton at the center of the story.

The roll call was a tense, strange, wonderful, beautiful, complicated moment as the Democrats pushed for unity in a year when lots of people are feeling pretty disillusioned by politics, and I don't blame them. The Republican party is in such disarray that the best it can offer is an overcooked carrot with a straw-toupee as its candidate. The Democrats fought viciously over two very distinctive personalities — even as the DNC in the background quite plainly supported one over the other long before the primary season was over.

It's easy to come away from this election year wanting to say "fuck politics," and go dig a hole in the back yard and lie there forever. I get that, I really do. I understand why some people don't want to vote in November, although I disagree with them. I understand why some people intend to vote the ticket selectively, although I disagree with them too.

The thing is that politics is a lot bigger than what happens at the RNC and DNC, about the two biggest names US voters will see on their ballots this November. It's about Congress, which could turn Democratic if people organize and turn out in force for those down ticket races. It's about state senates and assemblies, governors, supervisors, mayors, city council members, judges, school superintendents, treasurers, and all the other candidates on the ballot.

I've been passionate about politics at all levels for my entire life, but I've only really become involved in local politics for the last year or so, and it's been very eye-opening for me. It's also made me want to reach out to people who are disillusioned by, and frustrated with, and simply over, national politics. Because you can make a difference on the local level, and it's often immediate and extremely palpable.

Over the last 18 months, my hometown has been locked in a bitter battle over a homeless services organization, one which culminated in a ballot measure in June proposing that we ban all social services from the central business district. All in an attempt to drive out one organization — that law would have applied to a youth services group, the domestic violence shelter, a disability rights advocacy organization, a children's welfare fund, and many more. It was contentious and ugly, lots of people said and did really terrible things, and it also illustrated how meaningful local politics can be.

The measure failed, 1172 to 961, the kind of narrow margin that reflects a few people deciding that maybe they have time to go to the polls before they close after all. The spread in our last city council race was similarly small. Local politics can mean winning a race by ten votes. This fall, two seats in our city council are up for grabs, with both sitting members stepping down, and there's a legitimate question as to whether we will find enough candidates to fill the seats, let alone make the race competitive.

I've been going to every single city council meeting for months now, watching audiences wax and wane — often there are just a handful of us there, and we tend to be the same people. Sometimes there's a sudden crowd for one particular issue, with most attendees not understanding how the rules of civil procedure work and being deeply confused about the conduct of business. Those of us who are there week in and week out get to know the city council members, to be friendly (or hostile) with them — and our voices matter.

This week, I got up to comment on an agenda item regarding contracting a firm for an environmental impact report (EIR), which sounds, superficially, incredibly boring, right? Only there's a lot of discussion about development, the future of the town, what we want this place to look like, and the specific development that the EIR is evaluating. That document, if certified, will sway the planning commission's decision about whether to grant the requested building permit. That EIR, and who conducts it, and how, matters.

So I got up to state my case — supporting the firm in question and asking for the EIR to move forward so that we can take the next step in resolving a really contentious issue. I'm opposed to the development in question, but blocking the EIR is just going to be a drag on everyone's time and funds. It's the EIR that will provide the insight that might be used as leverage to block or radically rescale the development.

I kept it short and simple, well under the three minutes allotted for comment, and when the matter went back to the council, one of the councilmembers — someone whom I often pretty vehemently disagree with, actually — referenced my comments and talked about the role they played in his decision making. My comments made a difference. By showing up to city council meetings and establishing a rapport and speaking, I had a direct impact on an issue that matters to me, and one that will affect my day to day life.

I wouldn't say that this happens every single city council meeting, or on every single agenda item (that same night, we heard an exhaustive actuarial report on the city's benefits obligations, and I'm pretty sure the police chief was playing Pokemon the whole time). But it happens enough that I'm glad to be there. Engaging in local politics has very direct consequences. If I were eligible to run for city council, I'd probably go after one of those seats — which historically have been extremely homogenous in hue, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion. Instead, I volunteered for the city as a disability consultant as it moves forward with CDBG grants, because it's a service the city vitally needs, but can't afford, and I have professional skills to contribute to the cause.

Participating on the local level, whether you're going to meetings, or committing to voting, or running for your party's Republican or Democratic committee, or any number of other things, matters. It's empowering. The world is shaped by those who show up to shape it, and when it comes to local politics, that crowd tends to be extremely small, and it has an outsized influence as a result.

Whether you sat through that roll call and felt inspired, or tuned out and ground your teeth with frustration, think about the difference you can make on a local level. Look up city council, or planning commission, or community development commission, or public safety committee, or any number of other meetings, and show up — or submit comments, if you cannot attend.

This week, with the news that the remaining charges against officers in the Freddie Gray case were dismissed, I thought about the role local politics played in that decision. Baltimore voters have a right to participate in things like police funding allocations, equipment purchasing decisions, salary and compensation, and more. One of the many things Black Lives Matter has been doing in recent years is engaging directly with local politics precisely because of these issues.

So if you want to turn your back on politics, I completely understand why, but I'm also entreating you to please reconsider, because it's smart, driven, sensitive, thoughtful people like you who should be participating on the local level, whether you want to run for office or pointedly perch in the front row at every planning commission meeting.

Photo: Mike Steele/Creative Commons