Friday, February 5, 2010

For Good or Bad, We Elect Our Own

Show and Tell

Last week, I talked about the photo from the New York Times showing the newly-built USS New York steaming through New York Harbor. Built in part by steel recovered from the World Trade Center disaster site, this new ship represents to me a variety of themes, some of which I discussed in relation to the picture.

That made me wonder about doing a feature on Fridays called “show and tell”. When I was in First Grade, my teacher, Miss Wells, had show and tell on Fridays. I don’t remember what I ever brought to participate, but I remember Fridays were my favorite school day – partly because of show and tell, and partly because the school week was almost over.

So today, I have another photo, and without any further ado, I’ll “show” it and “tell” a little something, too. In this blog, we’ve had a heavy week topic-wise, so today we’ll kind of settle back and let our hair down (which will be easier for some than for others, and impossible for me….)

They Can't Take Me Anywhere

This past Tuesday, I attended a meet-and-greet function for Texas governor Rick Perry, who is up for re-election, and primaries for which come this May. Sponsored by the young professionals group of the Heritage Foundation’s Dallas chapter, the event was held at a mansion in Highland Park, owned by an affable oil executive and an old-money heiress. Well, old for Dallas, anyway.

Apparently, the host family had been expecting less than 100 people, but over double that number showed up, undoubtedly after hearing about the free liquor and a chance to schmooze with our state’s longest-serving governor. At ten years in office, Governor Perry has enjoyed a level of popularity and support unheard of in Texas politics.

I asked the friend who invited me why we were supporting a guy who’s already spent so much time in office. Weren’t we supposed to be anti-incumbent? My friend challenged me to ask the governor that question – after all, this was a meet-and-greet, not a victory watch party.

After hemming and hawing for days, I sent in my RSVP the afternoon of the event, and showed up to find parking at a premium and the entry hall stuffed with young, thin, tanned twentysomethings – Dallas’ beautiful people.

Governor's in da House

As I passed through the home’s beautiful carved-stone doorway, a couple in front of me suddenly stopped. The guy, looking very out-of-place among the beautiful people and more like somebody I’d find striding down Brooklyn’s 86th Street, turned from his date, a bleached-blonde, and muttered, “this is a political event”?! They quickly brushed back by me, and walked towards the driveway. Later, I saw the same guy arm-in-arm with the governor and the bleached blonde, getting their picture taken.

Thankfully, I found a couple of friends from church hovering in what appeared to be either a small ballroom or an oversized living room. We were chatting about nothing in particular, when the crowd in front of us silently parted and the governor was walking directly towards me, arm extended. I shook his hand and he immediately acknowledged (with considerably more interest) the three women standing next to me. I’ve never known a politician to shy away from the ladies, and these being particularly attractive ones, Perry instinctively launched into a hearty conversation with them.

I’m not stupid, so I wasn’t insulted. And to his credit, when a different bleached blonde, this one in a revealing little black dress and a deep, fake tan, stuck her hand into our little group to interrupt the governor, Perry politely shook it before continuing our conversation. She with the fake tan stood there momentarily, stunned that her charms didn’t work, and then slinked off. When I looked at the photos of the event online, she ended up appearing in many of them with all sorts of guys, so her evening obviously wasn’t ruined by the governor’s rebuff.

Perry’s conversation with us ranged from jogging to the “yin and yang” of political problems to the economy (he used that yin and yang phrase again in his extemporaneous remarks at the end of the evening). As the chit-chat dwindled off, however, I took my chance.

“Governor, what is your view of Medina’s idea for replacing the current property tax with an increased state sales tax”? I asked quickly. (FYI, this primary race is between Perry, US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and political neophyte Debra Medina, who is favored by the tea party crowd.)

This Guy Knows the Issues

At my mention of Medina, the governor hesitated and, turning to me, said in a grave tone, “We view Medina as a distraction, so I don’t want to get into her positions on things tonight.”

At first, I thought I had insulted the governor, but he was just warming up.

“You bring up a very good question, though; something that a lot of people don’t really think through”, Perry continued.

And then he was off, doing his political shtick like the 10-year pro that he’s become. He explained that eliminating Texas’ property tax – which is the state’s main source of revenue, since we don’t have an income tax – and increasing the sales tax would immediately put Texas at a disadvantage compared with our border states. Where would you go to purchase a car, a major appliance, furniture, and other big-ticket items? Anyplace but Texas, right, if our sales tax was more than double that of other states?

(Now, I realize that at this point, the eyes of my non-Texan readers are glazing over, but bear with me; I’m almost done with the policy part of this story.)

Perry continued explaining his position, and I was surprised at his interest in maintaining our conversation when so many beautiful people were now cramming into the room with us, waiting for their chance with the governor.

Texans know that funding for public schools in our state comes from a complicated calculation of the property tax. Perry pointed out that removing the property tax would also remove the financing for public schools, which currently takes 60% of the property taxes. Basically, these taxes are determined at the local level, but are distributed by the state. However, Perry explained, without the property tax structure, public schools would have to get their financing from the sales tax, along with all of the state agencies. According to Perry, this would remove the already-contentious issue of local control over public schools and risk the stability of the state’s overall budget.

Well, you can imagine how impressed we all were at the depth and breadth of the governor’s perspective. Perry turned to me as he finished, and what could I say? This was the one question – other than the incumbency issue – that I had in this primary, and he’d nailed it. In a room full of other people jostling for his attention, he stuck on-message and hammered away his position.

Of course, as he talked, he spent the entire time looking at Stephanie, the woman standing to my left in the photo. Granted, she’s a delight to behold, along with the other ladies in the photo, but the governor couldn’t take his eyes off of her. For the rest of the evening, we teased Stephanie about how she was able to captivate the governor.

Nevertheless, I was impressed. I found the problems I had with Perry’s ten-year tenure melting away, as I realized that maybe experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It dawned on me that while he may not be the person I’d most like to be governor, he’s still the best candidate for the job during this election.

“Governor, you’ve just won my vote”, I exclaimed as he turned to walk away, somewhat surprising myself with my decision. But who else is there? He’d given an erudite answer to my question, which had diminished my earlier problem with his incumbency. Politics really isn’t that complicated: he had won my vote.

Perry patted me on my chest and smiled, turning into the crowd of beautiful people for more photos.

People, Politics, and Potential

Now, I know: some readers could take this as a strictly political endorsement of a partisan candidate, and draw conclusions I’m not intending to make. Yes, Perry is a Republican, and no, I’m not voting for either of the Democrats running in their primary. Yes, I’d already decided that I wouldn’t be voting for Hutchinson, because she voted for the $700+ billion “stimulus” bill only one day after saying she wouldn’t. And yes, I’m still of a mind to throw as many incumbents out of office as I can. I firmly believe that we’ve got too many people in statehouses and on Capitol Hill who have no idea what it is to find and keep a job outside of an election.

However, for this race, in this state, I’ve made a decision based on the facts that I’ve been able to learn. Is Perry the best person to be governor of Texas? No; as I said, there are other people who would probably be far better than Perry. The problem is they’re not running this year. To the extent that our political situation is as bad as it is because not enough good candidates want to run for elected office, our society will need to change what it expects from our leaders, and indeed, what it expects of itself.

Which is where the real rub lies. Wherever you live, if you’re a citizen in a country where you can vote, look at the people in office and running for office. What is the extent to which these people represent the prevailing social climate of your state and country? And what is the extent to which you’re content with the prevailing social climate where you live?

Isn’t it obvious that as a society, we elect people based mostly on lowest common denominators rather than the highest principles? I’m not saying Perry is an evil person, that he’s a bad governor, that he represents all that is bad about our state, or that I feel like I have no other choice to make. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be voting for him.

I’m simply saying that if we look at our leaders and wonder why things can’t be better where we live, maybe it’s not so much the fault of our politicians as it could be the folks that put them in office to begin with.

After all, how much more effective a governor might Perry be if the people he represents better fulfilled their obligations as citizens, voters, taxpayers, volunteers, church members, drivers, gun owners, hunters, boaters, employees, employers, parents, students, teachers… you get my drift.

So, as you look at the photo with the fat, bald guy with some of the party’s beautiful people, think of it not so much as an affirmation of a particular political party, but the opportunity – and duty – each of us has to participate and contribute to the success of our great democracy.

Who are the real leaders?

Photo c Daniel Driensky

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