Political Culture: All Politics Is Local (Unfortunately)

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Americans’ loathing for politicians has reached historic levels — and as Jon Cummings discovered, a squalid local race in one California county justifies their disdain.

During the two-plus years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve regularly engaged in philosophical debates with readers whose views on government are irrevocably tainted by their loathing for politicians. Most of these readers are conservative, Tea Party types, though these days there’s plenty of disaffection at every point on the political spectrum. Their logic usually goes something like this: If any policy that emerges from Washington is forged by corrupt incompetents who are in the pockets of moneyed interests, then it goes without saying that government can’t possibly achieve anything worthwhile. Throw the bums out!

If conservatives have achieved nothing else during the Obama administration, they certainly have convinced a broad swath of the electorate that government is irredeemable. In November 2008, Americans by wide margins elected a president and Congress who campaigned on promises to reform health care, re-regulate Wall Street, restrict carbon emissions, take a proactive approach to stimulating the economy, etc., etc. They came into office, hit the ground running and proceeded to implement much of this agenda … yet today majorities of those same Americans pronounce themselves displeased, even fed up with their government.

Credit (or blame) for that development goes to the Republicans’ adept exploitation of both recessionary fears and the legislative sausage grinder. All of a sudden, they’ve argued — as it if hadn’t been happening for years under the GOP — politicians are spending too much and are making shady deals to get legislation passed. Beyond that, anyone on the right or left who dares to seek compromise is reviled as a traitor, rather than celebrated as a statesman. Throw in the usual assortment of scandals (real and imagined), and it’s no wonder Americans have convinced themselves that all politicians are scoundrels. As a result, anti-incumbency is rampant, and it has left office-holders from both major parties (but especially Democrats) clinging to a crumbling precipice, like Jack and Locke in the Lost finale.

As a liberal who is generally more interested in outcomes than process – yes, I know that many of these bums are corrupt and incompetent, but that doesn’t mean something good can’t occasionally emerge from the squalor – I have struggled against the trend toward torches and pitchforks. I tend to focus on the checklist of societal problems I’d like to see rectified, rather than on the mundane tawdriness of the Cornhusker Kickback or the trumped-up Van Jones controversy. (Somebody please break out a chalkboard, because I’m still confused: Is that guy a Commie or a Nazi?) But this spring’s campaigning in my home state of California – and particularly in my suburban enclave northwest of L.A. – has been so repulsive, so downright weaselly in its intellectual dishonesty and its disdain for the voting public, that even my steadfast naïveté has been shaken to its core.

It was Tip O’Neill, in another time and place, who said that “All politics is local.” He meant that, no matter the national or even global ramifications of a particular policy, citizens will decide what they think of it (and will elect or reject candidates) based on concerns about their families and their communities. O’Neill may have been correct at the time he said it, and the phrase may still have some merit today – but not much. Not when elections at every level of government are contested on the same grounds of deception, mutual mistrust and scorn between right and left. Not when Arizona’s disgusting immigration law can become a national (and international) cause célèbre overnight.

And not when a candidate for an office as small-time as a seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors finds it necessary to employ tactics that would make Karl Rove blush.

The players in this putrid little drama are both Republicans – a scenario that is playing out across the country, as candidates in GOP primaries (including California’s comical gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races) fall all over themselves to prove their far-right bona fides to the teabaggers. But party isn’t really important here – particularly because the Board of Supervisors is supposed to be a nonpartisan entity, tasked with deciding land-use issues, approving construction permits, approving the county’s contracts with health-care providers and public-service unions, and such. Thus, the mudpit into which our local pols (and their rival constituencies) have thrust themselves is even more fetid than most — though, to be fair, the blame for the rough-and-tumble political battle currently being waged over this non-political position rests squarely with one person: current California Assemblywoman Audra Strickland. Her penny-ante incompetence, outsized ambitions and utter lack of scruples exemplify everything Americans have come to despise about “career politicians.”

Mrs. Strickland’s story starts badly, and only gets more despicable as it goes along. A former middle-school teacher with no prior elective experience, Audra ran for the State Assembly when her husband Tony was term-limited out of the job in 2004. After Tony fixed the GOP nomination for her, her election was a cakewalk – as it would be for any Republican candidate in my heavily conservative district. Once in the legislature, Audra built a flawless record — with not a single substantive law to her credit during six years in office. She and Tony (now a state senator) have, however, proven themselves masters of campaign-finance trickery – hiring each other as consultants in order to funnel campaign funds for their private use, and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate interests that she has shuffled from one campaign account to another as her ambitions have shifted.

About those ambitions: After three terms in the legislature, it’s now Audra’s turn to be term-limited into retirement. But clearly she’s in no mood to quit suckling the public teat, and since she can’t take Tony’s job this time, she has spent the last year searching for a government position to which she can get herself elected. She began raising money to run for Secretary of State, but soon realized she doesn’t have the statewide juice for that campaign, so she set her sights more local — on the position of Ventura County Treasurer-Tax Collector. Never mind her utter lack of qualification for a job handling the county’s money, said the local Republican Party … a wholly owned subsidiary of Strickland For Whatever, Inc. … but her candidacy didn’t pass the sniff test with the Board of Supervisors, which implemented new requirements (like a background in finance, duh) that ensured Audra’s disqualification.

And so, of course, Audra decided to kill two birds with one stone – to punish one of the supervisors who voted against her, and simultaneously get herself elected to a new office. Trouble was, the supervisor for the district in which she lived was the only one who had voted in her favor. So she decided to rent an apartment in another district – my district – and run against a two-term incumbent with a solid reputation, former Thousand Oaks mayor Linda Parks. (Besides helping to box Audra out of the treasurer job, Parks had committed the cardinal sin of endorsing Tony’s Democratic opponent in the 2008 state senate race.) Audra moved some belongings into her new digs in early February, just before the filing deadline, and within the week she announced her candidacy by saying that because of her enthusiasm for protecting the local environment, her opponent “might as well be a carpetbagger from Berkeley.”

See how she did that? Deflecting concerns about her own recent move, as well as her record as a non-entity in the despised state legislature, by putting a Berkeley-liberal taint on a career local and fellow Republican? Well, things have only gotten more sordid from there, with more than a dozen direct-mail hit jobs and several push-polls full of lies and distortions – all paid for by the Ventura County Republicans and/or real-estate developers, who so far have shoveled almost $300,000 into a race in which the usual total expenditure (by both candidates) is one-sixth that figure.

In the race’s newest twist, Parks recently challenged Strickland to a debate after Audra failed to show up at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Soon enough, the head of a local business association, Rick Lemmo, offered to moderate a debate that’s now scheduled for tomorrow. So everyone was pleased — until it was discovered last week that on the day Audra was supposed to be at the LoWV event, she had instead attended a fundraiser at the home of … wait for it … Mr. Lemmo. Now both Strickland and Lemmo are claiming that Parks “can’t be trusted” if she doesn’t show up at the rigged-for-Audra debate.

Fortunately, while a race this insignificant generally doesn’t merit pre-election polling, the sentiment among letter-writers to the local newspapers is running distinctly anti-Audra. Her puerile tactics seem to have turned even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives against her, and it’s been nice to see the tide shift toward general revulsion. Still, the county’s formidable GOP machine might make her success inevitable – which in itself would be a sad development, marking the end of “nonpartisanship” in local governance.

I have no personal stake in a Strickland defeat or a Parks victory. But in an era when honor and civility have nearly vanished from American politics, it’s astonishing that such a small-scale contest in my own backyard has managed to embody everything that’s gone wrong. Yes, this is a hatchet piece decrying an individual politician who has gone off the deep end – but it’s also an outcry against an entire breed of politicians who have come to confuse careerism with character, victory with virtue. Here’s hoping Audra Strickland, and all the rest of them – regardless of party – will be turned away, soon, and forever.