"For years I have worked as a volunteer in my community. I've learned many things:
—That strong neighborhoods do not stand in the way of progress; they are progress.
—That government should not simply tolerate citizen participation; it must encourage citizen participation.
—That the public debate of public policy does not slow change; it promotes change.
—That decisions must be based on information, not on whim.
I promise that I will not forget what I have learned."
Everyone applauded. Of course they applauded. Those were my words to my friends; mainly the volunteers I'd met over the years working on community issues. They were the people who knew me, and who supported my candidacy for City Council, 4th District. It was my campaign kickoff event in July 1991.
There were three serious candidates for the open 4th District seat. To this day I am amazed that I was elected. Knoxville had two daily newspapers in 1991. I was thrilled by the endorsement of The Knoxville Journal in the primary. The Knoxville News-Sentinel did not endorse a 4th District candidate, choosing instead to simply note that there were "three highly qualified candidates" and that the race was "too close to call." I won the primary and began the mad dash for the citywide general election. Again, the Journal endorsed my candidacy. The News-Sentinel wrote a lengthy editorial that ended with "There are the issues as we see them, laid out as fairly and frankly as we know how. With all that said, our inclination is toward Carlene Malone, though on a larger scale we feel that both have the potential to serve Knoxville effectively." Armed with the endorsement of the Journal, the inclination of the News-Sentinel, and with hard-working volunteers, I was elected.
Local campaigns are usually run by volunteers and are intense, exhausting, exhilarating, and occasionally humorous affairs. I will never forget how hard volunteers were willing to work and how hard the work really was. And I learned a lot about campaigns. I thought a campaign was the time to tell the voters what you honestly think about things. I was wrong.
The purpose of a campaign is to get elected and should not be confused with a debate club. Candidates are told that there is great risk in taking a clear position on any real issue. The thinking is that each time you clearly state your view on a specific issue, you give some portion of the voters a reason to vote for the other candidate. This is why every candidate is for mom and apple pie, a.k.a. strong neighborhoods, increasing the tax base, revitalizing downtown, low taxes, and so on. Forget bold and courageous positions on specific issues. Cling to concepts that are general and agreeable. If a candidate is asked how he plans to simultaneously accomplish seemingly conflicting goals, more times than not he will give a tortured non-answer or he will say he has to study the issue. And expect a similar response if asked how he would vote on a real, pending issue.
It takes practice and talent to avoid answering questions while appearing to be giving an answer. But, more than that, it takes an atmosphere that accepts this level of political discussion. Until public debate of public policy is allowed at Council meetings and at Council workshops, and until the media are committed to providing continuous, objective, in-depth coverage of local issues, it will be difficult to meaningfully distinguish one candidate from another. What is missing in Knoxville is daily information regarding local government that provides the basis and the background for campaign debate. This is something only City Council and the media can provide. If you think I am wrong and believe that the public is adequately informed, consider this: A groundbreaking ceremony for the new convention center was held long before any funding was approved by City Council or any funding strategy was even announced. All news media covered the event, which included a fireworks display and hard hats. Not one media outlet noted that there was no funding for the convention center.
In the absence of widespread knowledge of local issues, the media, as well as the campaigns, must strain to interest the public in local elections. This produces problems for the candidate and ultimately for the public. The media identify and dwell on only one or two activities or attributes of each candidate, causing each to become a caricature of himself. Caricatures are exaggerations. By the time I was elected in 1991, I knew that I could not be as good or as bad as I was expected to be.
With candidates reduced to catch-phrase caricatures and political debate resembling the meaningless chant of some ancient cult, campaigns fail to connect with the people. And we wonder why so many choose not to vote. If my view of the local political atmosphere is even close to reality, we should wonder more about the basis on which people decide their vote. Clearly, there are as many reasons why a vote is cast for a candidate as there are voters. On the local level, direct contact or the word of a personal friend carries a lot of weight. And past involvement in local issues counts a great deal. But I think it gets down to which candidate the voter trusts the most out of the entire field of candidates. "Trusts the most" is not to be confused with "trust." Candidates and elected officials are not and should not be trusted! This is America and this is a democracy. Our spirit is one of skepticism. Unfortunately, in Knoxville, skepticism, public debate, and checks and balances are often confused with disloyalty and cynicism. They are neither.
Voters are hoping for a candidate who, if elected, will listen to what they have to say, be willing to share their thoughts with the public, include them in the decision-making process, take seriously the work of the office, explain their vote on issues, appreciate the complexity of the problems, and be willing to work for as long as it takes to find a solution. And they hope for a candidate who will be careful with how the public's money is spent. Citizens want elected officials who remember that this is their city too.
Soon after I was elected in 1991, a reporter asked what troubled me most about City Council. I replied "The silence." No one asked that question again. Years later I was invited to speak at a meeting for the North ZAC of the Empowerment Zone. Every person there had worked hard for the community and had high hopes for it. I knew then what troubled me most about local government and I knew why I favored term limits: Expectations. It is clear to me that the general population has higher expectations for their community and for their city than their government has. This is not meant to insult or criticize present elected officials. It is simply recognition of the fact that elected officials are human and they deal with stubborn problems that are difficult to solve. Every city official I know is committed to making Knoxville a better city. However, it takes enormous effort to bring about even small improvements, and therefore expectations are slowly lowered.
Local government has a profound effect on almost every facet of your life. The present Council races are important. Term limits will produce five new Council members. This election is the opportunity to bring higher expectations, enthusiasm and energy to the conduct of city business. The new members can raise the performance standards of City Council and the expectations for the future of our city as well. However, in order for there to be sound decision making, an appreciation of checks and balances, sustained higher expectations and a better Knoxville, the Council must debate and the media must inform. This election is the beginning of real change. The public would be wise to remember that the direction of that change depends on continuous, broad, informed, and active citizen participation.