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What a Politician Needs to Do to Be a Public Servant

Elected office should be more than a steppingstone to higher office or wealth accumulation. Among other things, elected officials should respect their constituents and side with the underserved whose voices are rarely heard.

A community empowerment meeting convened around 1990 at an Atlanta elementary school.
A community empowerment meeting convened around 1990 at an Atlanta elementary school.
(Photo provided by the author)
I never liked it when someone called me “a politician.” I would always cringe and snap back, “public servant.” Whenever I tried to argue with my friends about almost any subject, they often tried to undermine my point by saying, “He’s just being political.” I was offended because I knew their dismissals were centered on the belief that all elected officials were liars and blowhards who rarely delivered on commitments. Although I worked hard not to be one of “those politicians,” for years it was not clear whether I deserved to wear the label of public servant. I don’t know if the question is any clearer today for those who choose to serve.

As we know from poll after poll, trust for government and politicians has slid since the 1960s. And in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey measuring satisfaction with democracy, 71 percent of Americans — including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans — said they don’t believe that most elected officials care about average citizens. In an earlier Pew survey that measured attitudes toward various professions, including scientists, public school principals and police officers, elected officials came in dead last in respondents’ confidence that they would act in the public’s interest.
Trust in leadership chart
That’s all bad news, but the good news is if enough elected officials cared about this schism, they could do something about it by adjusting their attitudes and changing their behavior. This could start with abandoning their tendency to elevate expediency over principle, party over the needs of constituents, and the powerful over the powerless. But it also includes embracing elected office as an opportunity to serve the needy and not as a steppingstone to a higher office or wealth accumulation.

Elected officials’ attitudes and motivations for public service drive their behavior once in office. Here are some important questions to ask: Do they adopt more substantial opportunities for the public to participate in innovations like public equity budgeting to ensure that budgets better reflect the values of the community? Do they spend time in communities helping constituents understand how government works and showing them how they can make it work better for them? Do they even care enough about residents who work to schedule official meetings after business hours so more of them can participate?

Another way I believe that elected officials can show more respect for their constituents is to read all legislation that might affect those they serve prior to voting. When I was an Atlanta city councilman, it used to make my blood boil when I had to sit in the council chamber and listen to my colleagues pontificate about important matters for which they were largely ignorant and wholly unprepared to debate.

I recently had a discussion with a colleague from education who, after speaking with a state representative, advised a group of former college presidents that the letters they were writing to oppose several bills to curb the study of race and racism in Georgia needed to be short because most politicians won’t read beyond the first two paragraphs. This remark, as well-intentioned and probably true as it was, irked me because there are some issues of such importance that can’t be adequately addressed in short, superficial letters.

Sometimes when I am feeling full of mischief, I am tempted to advise voters to ask each candidate for office to name his or her favorite books read in the last six months. If they get a blank stare, they should move on to the next candidate.

On a more serious note, and certainly a principle that guided me while I was in office, is the belief that elected officials should side with the powerless when the powerless are right, and they often are right. Being raised in a working-class family and having known firsthand the many problems associated with poverty, I don’t romanticize poverty or elevate marginalized residents above others. But among the ranks of the underserved are hard-working individuals who often are not treated respectfully and whose voices are rarely heard.

As a public official, my legislative interests were focused on policies that helped those residents, like leveraging the city to create jobs for them in a First Source Jobs program. I was also keenly interested in affordable housing because low-income residents were the ones who were most likely to be homeless or home-fragile. And the empowerment conferences I held centered on underserved residents’ needs to access the services of government. I supported this type of legislative agenda not because I thought it would make me a public servant as opposed to a mere politician; I supported it because I believed it to be the right thing to do.

And this gets me to the crux of my argument: We need more elected officials willing to do the right thing. Certainly, there is a host of issues that public officials and residents alike will debate — taxes, what to do about gentrification, crime reduction and more. But most of us, if we are willing to be honest, know that if wealthy residents lived next to vacant lots and dilapidated buildings, it would not take state and local governments and courts long to find a solution. If more wealthy people sent their children to public schools, these institutions would not be lacking in books, technology and essential supplies. If small and neighborhood businesses were offered the same incentives as big companies that promise to bring jobs — but often fall short on their commitments — our communities would have more urban villages, local jobs, and lively and colorful neighborhoods.

The question before public officials today is where they stand on the important issues of fairness, justice and equity. Much of the rest will take care of itself. In addition to the ordinary duties of public office, will they self-consciously commit to elevating the profession beyond the level of a rank politician? Will they put on the armor of public duty and ask themselves if they are adding to or subtracting from the privilege of serving? Above all, will they help restore honor and public trust to a profession we once thought we needed a pinch of nobility to join?

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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