Does voting really matter? (Longer version)
A lot of people think it doesn’t. There isn’t that much difference between the candidates, they’ll argue, and partisan districting means a Democrat may not win the 26th Delegate seat or the 6th Congressional District in our lifetimes.
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But it you’re getting this letter, it’s because you’re on the list of people who vote. You know it matters, and here’s why I think it does.
We need people in office, particularly at the city council level, who can understand the complex inter-play of issues and responsibilities involved in running a small city. And we need people with a level of honesty, with themselves and others, that’s hard to measure.
Here’s a suggestion on how to measure that: Judge candidates on whether they have ever made a public decision that did them personal or political harm, but they did it anyway because it was the right thing for the city.
That’s not just me talking. Thousands of years ago the Greek poet who eulogized 300 Spartans defined a good man as one who “knows what is right and good for his city.” I first read that lyric between my election and the day I took office in 2000. And on that day I cast a vote on Heritage Oaks and another on the mayorship that hurt me personally and politically, but I cast those votes because I believe they were right and good for my city.
Last week I was apparently in trouble. The Daily News-Record caught me at a weak moment. I had taken a vacation day and planned to sleep in, but my wife, Deb, woke me early with an emergency call. She was working as an election official at Keister, and they needed plain, legal-sized envelopes at the polls. The Registrar’s Office had left them without the equipment or the supplies to let people vote.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the Registrar. I’ve been an Election Judge for several years and like other judges I also work with campaigns for my party. Two years ago the Registrar’s Office accused the young volunteers in my party of registering people illegally. No truth at all to it, but it kicked off what was a bad season for relations between me and Registrar Debbie Logan.
The office gave a hard time to students who wanted to vote for Barack Obama – voter suppression, it’s called in politics. They tried to keep legally qualified voters off the rolls, and the situation peaked when six forms were stolen from their office. A caller identified by police as Mrs. Logan’s son placed several obscenity-filled death threats to my home. Deb and I didn’t just decline to prosecute – sometimes 22-year-olds make mistakes – we’ve also been willing to sit down with Mrs. Logan and people with mediation skills. We haven’t heard from her. Not this week. Not in two years.
And that’s the context in which I wondered openly if the Registrar’s Office was at it again. It didn’t help me personally. It didn’t help me politically. But these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked after all the problems in the Registrar’s Office. Maybe I should have been more mealy-mouthed or politically correct, but that’s not how my mother raised me. The questions, badly phrased and intemperate though they might have been, are important. June 15 reminded us that we all benefit when elections are transparent and error-free. It’s what is right and good for our city.
Which is for me the only condition for making decisions on Harrisonburg’s future. But those decisions are never going to be simple or easy.
I don’t want to see another single room of student housing built. But we have to view it in the context of revenues and housing stock and traffic patterns and water supply. Still, my starting point will always be that enough is enough, not that we need to look at every project in isolation.
I want to see the Erickson Avenue bypass finished. But I don’t want to see other transportation needs left hanging because we think the bypass will clear them up.
I don’t want to see Harrisonburg lose its small-town character. But JMU is going to keep growing and we have to think in terms of taking advantages of the benefits that can come with that growth.
I don’t like tax increases. I may be the only council member in ten years to vote against one. But simply promising not to raise taxes can mean promising to cut something. That won’t be an easy choice.
But I’ve made the tough choices. I’m willing to make them, I’m good at making them, and I’ve made them honestly even when it hurt me. Ask yourself if any other candidate can make that claim.
Some of you will be getting fund-raising requests from me in the weeks to come. That’s not what this letter is, but it’s worth mentioning for a couple of reasons. First, because Deb and I plan to spend enough of our own money to show we’re serious, and raise enough to show support, but this letter we’re paying for ourselves. Second, I’ll give you a money-back guarantee. If anybody donates to my campaign, or has donated, and thinks I’ve run a bad or misguided campaign, I’ll give them their donation back at the end of the campaign. If I shoot my mouth off at the wrong time, or you don’t like my campaign colors, or I focus on the wrong issues, or you just think I’m not trying hard enough, tell me, and I'll send you a check. I'm putting my money where my mouth is.
Harrisonburg’s future belongs to all of us. Not just the Democrats, not just the Republicans. Not just the ones who were born here, and not just the ones who came here for work or quality of life. Not just the ones who vote for me. Not just those in poultry and not just those at JMU and not just those in retail or construction. All of us. It’s a future we need to work and fight for every day.
And if you let me help to lead that fight, I can promise you that I will always do what is right and good for my city. I always have.