Building a Different Kind of Political Candidate

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990’s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

1533885_10152639661618438_164317675_nI was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.

 

In Praise Of Effort Over Time

A dozen years ago, I was completing my stint leading a national election-ethics project, encouraging candidates to negotiate, sign, and abide by “clean campaign” pledges. It was, as you might imagine, an uphill battle. I was excited when a group in Toledo, Ohio, picked up the idea on their own and pressed for the 2001 mayoral race — which was getting quite brutal in the context of the times — to adopt such a pledge.

For the weekly newsletter of my organization, the Institute for Global Ethics, I penned a piece titled Toledo, Cradle of Civility, which began:

Great civic movements start in the unlikeliest of places — the front section of the Montgomery bus from which Rosa Parks refused to move, the Sacramento steak house where Mothers Against Drunk Driving first met, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio’s filibuster began the Free Speech Movement. To these history may one day allow us to add another: the restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of citizens met one night last August to discuss what they could do to demand a better quality of political campaign.

After a particularly tense debate between the mayoral candidates, the local daily newspaper, the Toledo Blade, had called on the front-runners (Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest and state representative Jack Ford) to sign a code of conduct to help keep the campaign out of the mud. To the surprise of many observers, they agreed. Brought together by the Toledo League of Women Voters, a group of citizens came together at Mountain Jack’s restaurant on the outskirts of town for the first of many meetings devoted to monitoring the code. Thus was born the Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee.

It was an effort that succeeded where many thought it would fail. By the end of the campaign, the talk radio hosts who had derided the committee were quoting it, and the Blade would only cover accusations of negative campaigning if the committee had already weighed in.

Since that time, the nascent, local effort has had its ups and downs. The Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee disbanded in 2004 under the weight of little public notice and other political interests its members wanted to pursue. Campaigns continued to increase in intensity and nastiness. But the Toledo Blade continued the effort after a fashion, calling on every mayoral candidate since then to adopt the pledge, and then holding them to its standards.

So I was delighted when I saw this week’s Blade editorial, calling on the current candidates for mayor to agree to and abide by a pledge:

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Click to go to article

As we have done during every Toledo mayoral campaign since 2001, The Blade is publicly challenging the general-election candidates to sign the Clean Campaign Pledge developed by the Institute of Global Ethics, a Maine-based nonpartisan group that promotes ethical behavior and integrity in public and private life.

The voluntary pledge appears on this page. Its language hasn’t changed since the institute composed it 15 years ago, but political campaigns at all levels surely have. They’ve gotten nastier, dirtier, less transparent, more polarized, and much more awash in money for go-for-the jugular TV ads.

Negative campaigning often does more to alienate voters than to educate them. And as the shameful 15-percent turnout for last week’s Toledo primary makes clear, we can’t afford to turn off any more voters.

That’s why this year’s campaign between Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, needs to be civil and respectful — of the candidates as well as of voters’ intelligence. The contenders must focus on issues and ideas, rather than personal insults and toxic attacks.

. . .

In its coverage of this year’s campaign, The Blade will continue to fact-check what the candidates say, whether or not they sign the pledge. If we see bad behavior, we’ll call the candidates on it.

In past campaigns, independent citizens’ groups reviewed candidates’ compliance with the pledge they had signed, and investigated and publicized charges of violations. It would be great if similar watchdogs emerged in the remaining weeks of this campaign, but it’s getting late.

Kudos to The Blade for keeping this effort going. Culture change can be a thankless business and it takes time.

Thank you for my friend and colleague Paula Mirk for passing on the news.

 

 

The GOP Needs A Bill Clinton

My main take-away from yesterday’s sound defeat of MItt Romney and many Republican Senate candidates is that the GOP needs to field a “new Republican” candidate in the same way the Democratic Party fielded Bill Clinton. The demographics of the nation are against the current GOP mindset of “traditional conservative values.”

The Democratic Leadership Council set out as its project to drag the Democratic Party to the right a tad, and it succeeded. Clinton (a DLC leader) was able to reinvigorate the party’s prospects.

The Republican Party could do with a similar, serious movement to drag it a bit left.

The emerging power of the Latino vote is just one area that the GOP could theoretically begin to make inroads, if the party could get behind loosening its hard-line stance on immigration. George W. Bush tried to do this, but was unable to seal the deal. He was ahead of his time in that respect.

[UPDATED: Added “A” in the title to remove confusion, thanks to a friend’s advice.]

Time For A Conversation

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses
By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

Only Divided Because We Think We Are: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

As some know, I have begun a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about recent research that sheds light on just how divided we are — in public vs. in private life.

Ethics Newsline

Only Divided Because We Think We Are

It is conventional wisdom among those who worry about the strength of civil society that Americans are polarized due in large part to the rhetoric of the political and media elites. Deep down, we are not so different from our neighbors, but the messages we hear from the news shows and from political podiums is that we must vanquish our foes lest the nation spiral ever downward.

New research by the Pew Research Center adds nuance to that, and provides a troubling counterpoint. According to this new report, Americans have remained moderately divided on important issues when traditional demographic measures are taken into account — race, gender, age, income status, etc. The differences have remained steady at (depending on the marker) between 4 and 14 percent from 1987 to 2012.

During this same period, however, the difference between Democrats and Republicans has climbed rather steadily and steeply, from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent today.

Put simply, the parties are pulling farther and farther apart.

And it’s not just the parties. While it is true that people have been abandoning both parties in public opinion surveys, so that “Independent” is now an important designation, the truth is that most Independents lean one way or another.

“Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012,” according to the researchers.

That’s the bad news. But there is also good news, mixed with a warning call, when we look more closely. Because it is not truly the case that people are drifting apart when it comes to values — it is our institutions drifting apart, leaving us behind.

(Continued . . .)

Read the full piece here.

Noelle McAfee Interviews Ziad Majed

My good friend Noelle McAfee has just published a very important intereview that she conducted with Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed.

The full interview is here. I urge you in the strongest possible way to read it.

Here is one small piece:

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries, while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia in Northern Africa. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.