May 22: The Rules of Engagement


My neighbor had what she called a “rental kid,” a bright 12-year-old whose parents would send the girl out here to the country for visits in the summer. I saw the rental kid from time to time when my neighbor would bring her to my house for a social gathering or when I went over there. I never thought a thing about it.

Then one day I saw the bright 12-year-old at a wedding or something and she had turned into a bright 30-year-old, and what she said to me was: “Your blackberry pies were part of my childhood.”

The trauma! There I was living life like normal, going to bed at night, getting up in the morning, maybe making a blackberry pie every now and then but I swear never more than two a summer. And now here’s this 30-year-old person acting like I’m Aunt Bee.

It’s a shock to realize you’re not a bright young thing yourself anymore, is what I mean, but have drifted somehow into back-fatted chin-haired Aunt Beehood when you weren’t looking. You can tell yourself it’s all some terrible mistake but you can’t deny you make one hell of a blackberry pie.

But this is not a cooking column. This is a political column. What happened is I realized I am in precisely the same position with Dade politics as I was with those blackberry pies!

It happened at the candidate debates in April. One of the county commission candidates came up to me with a problem, asking if I would do what I could in The Planet to set readers straight. This candidate kept hearing: “I’d love to vote for you, but I can’t because I live in one district and you’re running in another.”

Not so! In Dade, voters elect district commissioners and school board members at large rather than by district. You have to live in a district to represent it, but people who live in all the other districts get to vote for you (or your opponent).

It was not always so. When I started covering the county commission in 2008, people still voted by district. Then, after the November election …

You see what I’m getting at? I remember ancient history. I was there for ancient history. Hell, I’m part of ancient history. There is no point denying it. I’m Aunt Bee!

So at first I thought I would oblige the aforementioned candidate by looking up dates and writing a newsy little article about how at-large voting came about in Dade. But then I realized I was Aunt Bee and there were some related points I wanted to make about the coming election anyway, so I decided to make this a folksy little opinion piece instead. Why don’t you sit over there in the porch swing while I wipe my floury hands on my white bib apron? I’ll take the rocking chair, and while those pies bake we can discuss:

The Rules of Engagement

First let me tell you my voting-at-large story. It starts with a straw poll.

A straw poll is a nonbinding question on the ballot, such as: Do you think beer should be sold on Sunday? When I started covering local politics, I didn’t know what “straw poll” or “nonbinding” meant. I had to ask. The “nonbinding” part means it doesn’t change anything. What happens is maybe 70 percent of the people may vote yes, we want beer on Sunday. Then the politicians say, well, how the hell about that? But stores don’t start selling beer on Sunday. So it’s an interesting fact, but in order to make beer sales legal on Sunday further action is required, such as a referendum and an ordinance, dot dot dot.

As for the “straw poll” part, why they call it that, I looked it up just now because it sounded like something your fat-backed pie-bakin’ country aunt ought to know. Sure enough, it’s as folksy as chin hair. The term comes from holding a thin blade of hay up to see which way the wind blows.

Well. A straw poll is what happened in Dade County with the voting-at-large question, and from the poll it emerged that most people felt district commissioners and school board members should in fact be elected at large. I never did quite get why. You would think people in, say, Wildwood, would want to be the ones voting for a Wildwood commissioner to represent them, just like people who live in Minnesota elect Minnesota senators. But I gathered it had something to do with feuds and family resentments and so forth that went back a hundred years and that I would never understand, me being a newbie who had only been here a couple of decades. Maybe there was something in there about inbreeding.

One way or t’other, the People had Spoken. The next step was for the county commission to make a resolution, starting the formal process that would end in state legislation. And there was the rub. When the then-county executive chairman said he would entertain a motion to make the change, some of the other commissioners looked at their fingernails, some of them looked at the ceiling and one or two might have actually looked at him like he had boogers hanging out of his nose, but nobody would give him the satisfaction of making that motion.

That was not quite 10 years ago and I have already heard revisionism: “We may not have always agreed, but look at all we got done!” Trust your hairy old aunt, my dears, that’s the way it was: The then-chairman had made every one of the other commissioners so mad that if he screamed RUN! FIRE! they would all have sat there and burned to death to spite him. It was not until a new chairman took over that the commission was able to pass a resolution about voting at large.

This is a true story. It is also a parable.

I’m not going to name the then-chairman. I used to enjoy taking a shot at him every time I got clear aim—my dears, them was the glory days; every commission meeting was like shooting up the saloon!—but he’s not in politics anymore and it doesn’t seem cricket. (Though I do see him on the internet now and then, mansplainin’ how gummint ought to be done.) My point, though, is he was a man with Big Ideas—government was bad, taxes were slavery, public schools were communism, all like that—but he couldn’t persuade anybody to pass the salt. Here at the center of the universe, we learn that government, civilization—hell, survival!—is not about Big Ideas but about getting along with others.

(Not that I get along with ‘em myself! My defining story is the time I was in a local restaurant jam-packed on a Friday lunchtime, feeling all warm and fuzzy because, having originally come from a big city, I was now sufficiently a part of my beloved small town that I knew practically everyone in the dining room—until I realized that roughly 50 percent of them weren’t talking to me for one reason or another. Part of the job, I reckon. I always say that small-town journalism is the one thing that being unpopular in high school is job training for.)

Anyway! My overriding point here—my reason for writing this—is that I believe “Democrat” and “Republican” are Big Ideas like that. They may be helpful at the national level but here in small-town politics they are nothing but trouble. In small places like this we have to get along and “Democrat” and “Republican” do nothing but divide us.

I say this again and again, but nobody listens to me so I say it again: (That is something that marriage is job training for.) It’s not just that Democrats and Republicans around here are the same kind of people, it’s that they’re the same people. Almost all of our elected officials have switched parties in the last couple of decades in the interest of remaining, well, elected officials.

This is not dishonest of them. The offices they hold and the jobs they do every day have nothing to do with being Republican or Democratic, just with looking after the best interests of the area and the people who live in it. But how are they to get elected to do those jobs if they are running on the Democratic ticket and all the voters have stampeded over to the Republican side?

In a perfect world, all these local offices would be made nonpartisan. It was explained to me once why they are not. It had to do with, guess what, money—qualifying fees going partially to one party or the other, so that neither had any financial impetus to change the system.

Anyway. At the national level, or even the state one, being a “Democrat” or “Republican” might indicate what stance you take on Big Idea issues: Abortion laws, immigration, gun control, like that. But nothing we do at the local level will have the least effect on any of those.

However—and this is another thing I shout about until I’m hoarse, but which nobody listens to—it is at the local level that we live our lives: Reality. Here. Now. Local government is important. You can get up and down Burkhalter Gap because the county keeps the road in good shape, but you can’t buy a beer at the local golf club after your sweaty 18 holes because of the county’s restrictive liquor ordinance. Your kid has a new Chromebook at school because the school board bought one for every student, but the schools expect to be hurting for money soon because of the county’s 65/5 tax exemption, pushed through by Mr. Big Ideas.

These local government basics unite rather than divide us: Both Democrats and Republicans appreciate smooth roads, and practically nobody (except the sitting county commissioners) objects to beer with golf or pizza.

In any case, you don’t need a Democratic county official or a Republican one; what you want is somebody who knows the people and cares about them and won’t waste or steal their money. So when I hear people on the internet wondering who’s a RINO or who is secretly a Democrat I just want to scream. What’s your stance on gun control? they ask each other sternly. Who did you vote for for president?

So that’s Aunt Bee's first recommended Rule of Engagement: Cut that s__it out! Vote for the candidates you find honest and good. There are no Democrats or Republicans in local politics!

(That said, I must add here, a little sheepishly, that since May 22 is a primary election, the first thing you will have to do is declare yourself a Republican or Democrat in order to vote for any local commissioners and school board members at all. And actually, since there are only two local candidates running as Democrats, and they are running for separate seats, what we are talking about here realistically is the Republican primary.)

Long as this is getting, I should fulfill my obligation to the candidate I mentioned earlier by reiterating as Rule 2 that you vote at large. Two districts—1 and 2—are electing commissioners and school board members this year, and no matter which district you live in you can vote in all four of those races.

As for Rule No. 3, here's a simple one: Listen to the people who know, not the people who scream the loudest!

To illustrate that, let’s go back to 65/5 a minute. I ain’t opening that can of worms here. (I had to throw in a colloquialism there, because I have gotten too het up to remember to sound like Aunt Bee and must make up for lost time. How’s this? “Lawd-a-mercy!”) But I did notice at the April debates that every one of the board of education candidates, whether sitting or challenging, agreed that 65/5 had hurt the schools. My conclusion? That 65/5 had hurt the schools.

Likewise, I’ve noticed that a lot of the people shouting against the proposed TSPLOST are the same ones who also go berserk at the whiff of a property tax increase (but who nevertheless howl about potholes, service gaps and the deplorable state of more or less everything); while meanwhile everyone involved in either city or county government I’ve talked to about it sincerely believes TSPLOST is essential. So even though it will mean my already impressive poverty—I run an independent newspaper here!--will get a little more profound, I’m willing to pay the extra cent.

And that’s all! There's lots more that could be said about the election, and I'm sure it will be. My main concern, really, is that I hate all this Republican v. Democrat, Us vs. Them nonsense. It reminds me of stories I've read about the Spanish Civil War and Nazi-occupied France, when people in the countryside would actually kill each other over Big Ideas like who was a fascist and who a communist, or who a collaborationist and who a Resistant. When actually they were just small-town neighbors like ourselves.

Crap. I forgot to sound like Aunt Bee again. Here: "Oh, flibbertygibbet!"

Anyway I have to go. I got pies in the oven.

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