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May 22nd
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Now How About Serving The Public?

tom_honig_sNow that the election season is over, it’s time to hit the reset button. Political arguing has had its place. And there’s a lot to bat back and forth: the Republican sweep, the Democratic win in California, the role of the Tea Party and whether 72-year-old Jerry Brown can turn things around in California.

But none of that really has much to do with what comes next. Too often, observers of the political scene get taken up by who wins, who loses, and who’s going to run in the next election.

It’s time to get over it. Now it’s time to actually run the government and serve the people. Doing so takes different skills entirely. It’s not about the horse race anymore.

One of California’s most important public officials of the past 30 years was in Santa Cruz recently, speaking at a conference sponsored by Lighthouse Bank of Santa Cruz. The speaker, Elizabeth Hill, served from 1976 till 2008 in the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office – and she explained the magnitude of California’s budget problem.

If you listened to the rhetoric of the recent campaign – and I admit that I tuned it out after awhile – you would think that solving the problem in Sacramento would be easy. Cut salaries here, cut union pensions there, raise taxes on rich people – that sort of thing.

Think again. The hole is deep, she explained. It’s about $25.4 billion. How deep is that? “If you eliminate the University of California, the CSU system, the community college system and all of student aid, you would save $11.4 billion.”

How do we get our head around such a debt?

Yet if newly elected legislators try to suggest cuts – or suggest new taxes – voters will protest: “He’s a tax and spender!” Or: “She doesn’t care about programs for the poor!.”

The next day, a blue-ribbon federal commission appointed by President Obama unveiled a proposed federal plan to start eliminating the federal budget deficit. The plan would slice $200 billion a year out of federal agencies and bring in more than $100 billion from tax reform.

It sounds about right, but immediately, both Republicans and Democrats excoriated the plan. Why? Because they’re worried about losing support in the next election.

That’s why I’d like to hit the reset button. How about our public officials concentrate more on public service and less on winning election strategies?

Is that politically naïve?

Maybe so. But maybe that’s better than our practiced cynicism that results from the political campaigns. Political commercials and talking heads on cable news convince us that elections are like football games. Around Santa Cruz, that means Democrats Yea, Republicans Boo. In other places, that’s reversed. And whatever side we’re on, we accuse the others as being evil, misguided or stupid. Maybe all three. And that’s how the elected officials start acting toward each other.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I found an interview online with none other than our favorite CIA homeboy, Leon Panetta, who just prior to taking on his job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, discussed how to get things done and solve problems in government.

In an article from 2008 in the McKinsey Quarterly, a business publication out of San Francisco, Panetta drew the distinction between winning elections and actually serving the public:  “Politicians on both sides of the aisle have to be open to compromise. Their main objective should be to govern rather than to win. … If winning is more important than governing, if getting your 30-second sound bite is more important than solving problems – then the government will not work.”

When I first started in journalism, an older editor once told me not to rely on others’ quotes to make a point. “You’re the writer,” he said. “Don’t quote too much.”

Alas, I have to ignore that advice, because Panetta has the best last words:

“I think another missing ingredient these days is that nobody wants to talk about sacrifice. It’s a politically unpopular word, and yet it’s what success in this country comes down to.

“The greatest moments in our nation’s history have been when Americans pulled together and made sacrifices to get things done. It’s been a long time since we’ve resurrected the spirit of sacrifice in this country.”

In other words, it ain’t about red states and blue states. It ain’t about Democrats and Republicans. It ain’t about what’s wrong with Kansas. It’s time for politicians to stop strategizing and start serving the public.


Contact Tom Honig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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