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JOSEPH N. BELL

Kingmakers Having Difficulty Finding Anyone to Crown

March 09, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Ever since the architects of our Constitution got together and decided George Washington was the only man able to hold 13 disparate colonies together long enough to find out if it would work, back-room kingmakers have been part of the national political scene.

And not just the national scene.

As local and regional offices have been invested with more and more power and prestige over the years, they have become sought after instead of going by default.

As that has happened, the people who put up the obscenely heavy money for political campaigns in counties and municipalities all over the nation--and assuredly in Orange County--have been increasingly seen as the power brokers who force-feed us the candidates.

This is accepted political dogma, and I've certainly believed it for a long time. In one unfortunate way, it's a comfortable scenario to accept because it effectively removes our guilt for not getting involved directly in the local political scene. It wouldn't do any good anyway, so this reasoning goes, if you aren't anointed by those fat cats in the back room.

Well, I had lunch the other day with a highly respected Republican civic leader and businessman who shot some gaping holes in the kingmaker mythology. He preferred not to be identified in return for some straight talk about the origin, care and feeding of political candidates--particularly on the local scene.

This man ran for a hotly contested seat in an Orange County municipality several years ago and lost. There are no sour grapes. "On balance," he said, "I enjoyed the experience--but I'll probably never do it again."

His reasons for feeling this way, he says, run directly counter to conventional political dogma.

"We don't have kingmakers sitting in a back room somewhere deciding who our political candidates are going to be," he said.

"Even if they wanted to, they couldn't do it for one very simple reason: They (have great trouble finding) anyone to run. It's amazing that we can still turn up halfway decent people who are willing to run for public office."

He said the price is too stiff for most citizens, and he gave some specific reasons why.

"The first thing that set me back--and finally angered me," he said, "is the suspicion that virtually everyone seems to feel instantly about all political candidates. I sensed a basic assumption on the part of the voters that those of us who choose to run for public office are up to no good.

"If they don't say it, you can read the questions in their eyes. 'Why is this guy running? What's his ulterior motive? Whose briefcase is he carrying?' This puts us on the defensive about 80% of the time, which, in turn, makes it almost impossible to develop issues."

Then, he said, there's the matter of full disclosure. "There are a lot of people," he explained, "who are simply not willing to make public all their financial dealings in order to run for office. Not because they've done anything illegal but simply because it's no one else's business. Nor do they want to be in a situation where every action they've ever taken can be open to question and misinterpretation."

Financial sacrifice is a given when running for office. "You have to cut back drastically on personal involvement in business. You're not only sacrificing income but pumping your own money into the campaign. And once you stop generating income, everything is in jeopardy. Not very many of us live on accumulated wealth. Also you virtually give up your family, especially if you have young kids, because a political campaign is all-consuming.

"Look at the profiles of nonincumbents running for political office in Orange County. Very few of them come into political life in their late 30s or 40s. Most candidates either come in very young or after they have retired."

He admits that a run for office is "an ego trip, no question about that." But it is frequently a great deal more, he says, and that too often goes unrecognized. "I'm not a professional politician," he said. "I just believe in community participation in government, especially on the local scene--not as a steppingstone to a bigger political job but as a civic duty. That's why I ran for local office. All I ever wanted was (to be elected to) the city council."

I believe him, and I admire him for putting himself on the line. But in one sense, he refutes his own argument that no good candidates are available.

He was available--and he's good.

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