"I'm Calling About My Light Bill"

The Washington Post ran a long article about Greenwood, South Carolina, looking at how the community is faring thus far in the age of Obama (...
by | April 29, 2009
 

EdithChilds The Washington Post ran a long article about Greenwood, South Carolina, looking at how the community is faring thus far in the age of Obama (poorly). The article focuses on County Councilwoman Edith Childs, because she was the person who introduced Obama to the chant "fired up, ready to go."

What's most interesting from a local governance perspective is how much of her time -- and personal funds -- are devoted to helping constituents.

GREENWOOD, S.C. Her cordless phone stores 17 voice messages, and tonight the inbox is full. Edith Childs, 60, grabs a bottle of water, tosses her hat on the living room floor and scowls at the blinking red light. A county councilwoman, she spent the past 12 hours driving rural roads in her 2001 Toyota Camry, trying to solve Greenwood's problems, but only now begins the part of each day that exhausts her. Childs slumps into an armless chair and steels herself for a 13-minute confessional.

"Hi, Ms. Edith, this is Rose, and I'm calling about my light bill. It's $420. . . . There's no way I can pay that."

"Edith, it's Francine. . . . They stopped by my house again today, talking about foreclosure. I don't know what to do. Can you call me?"

Childs leans her head back against the wall and closes her eyes. Her hair is matted down with sweat, and thin-rimmed glasses sink low on her nose. Every few minutes, she stirs to jot notes on a to-do list that fills most of a notebook. She has to remind herself that she ran for county council in 1998 because she coveted this role: unofficial protector, activist and psychologist for her home town. Back then, the hardships of Greenwood -- 22,000 people separated from the nearest interstate by 40 miles -- struck Childs as contained. Now she sometimes wonders aloud to her husband, Charles: "When does it stop?"

"Yes, councilwoman, this is Joe Thompson calling. Uh, I'm having a bit of an emergency."

Recently, I met Ardell Brede, the mayor of Rochester, Minnesota, who told me that his cell phone number basically acted as the city's 311 complaint center. It's not surprising to me that elected officials have to spend a lot of time on constituent service matters that touch on government, but I'm curious how many dip into personal funds to help constituents pay bills.

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