Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Business People Don't Run For Public Office

In the weeks before the election filing deadline, I’d been approached by two different ad hoc groups asking me to help them convince local businesspeople to seek elective office.

They both believed that if successful businesspeople were elected, we’d have a legitimate shot at cleaning up a lot of the ongoing financial turmoil government is experiencing at every level, and either eliminate, or at least slow, the inevitable regulatory and tax increases. They seemingly viewed me as someone who has successfully made that transition from the private sector to government.

In my experience it’s possible to run government like a business if you actually mean to — and know how. However, in my view, there is also a myriad of reasons why successful businesspeople don’t answer the call to public service.

My personal motivation stemmed from anger at a highly dysfunctional City government where phone calls weren’t returned, emails were ignored, and some very simple questions were not responded to for more than two years — unanswered questions that cost myself, my wife, and our business, an inexcusable amount of money. I’ve always believed that if you want something fixed right, fix it yourself — so that’s what I set out to do.

That said, the level of invasion of your personal privacy is perhaps the most chilling aspect of running for — much less being elected to — public office. Your personal and business finances become public. The most personal aspects of your private life become everyone’s business. You can become the victim of vicious rumors — and outright lies — about your personal life and/or financial affairs, intentionally circulated by political opponents.

The political spin machine operated by our local media allows for the routine distribution of massive disinformation — as we witnessed with the NASCAR debate a few years ago. It also encourages ongoing character assassination by small-minded people with personal agendas writing in the local blogs — people who are not required to even sign their names to their vitriolic commentary.

In my view, these are equal to Letters to the Editor, only in a more immediate form. You’re required to submit verifiable identification to get a Letter published. I've yet to receive a non-lame answer from the Kitsap Sun or the Kitsap News Group as to why the blogs are any different.

Being in the news business I can tell you it's because they don't want to publicly admit the answer is that online advertising rates are usually set by the number of page views a given Web site generates. If an article can sufficiently stir up the cadre of regular posters, and the more moronic segment of these folks begin arguing with each other online (sound familiar?), it helps drive ad rates higher. It’s just that simple.

I firmly believe if the local media only allowed these folks to post using real, verifiable names, the level of discourse would become much more civil — and more intelligent folks would become engaged at every level.

While voters have a right to know who they’re voting for, I also believe that invasion of privacy is why businesspeople generally decline to needlessly subject themselves, the future of their businesses, and their families, to the vitriol of anonymous people who steadfastly refuse to allow actual facts to ever influence their opinions. That disservice by the media often leaves us choosing between the lowest common denominator of candidates for public office. And it’s the decisions those sometimes unqualified folks make after being elected that impact our businesses, the state budget, the business and regulatory climate locally and statewide, and of course, taxation.

Over the past three and half years, I’ve worked closely with a large number of elected officials from the federal and state levels on down to small taxing districts. While we do have a lot of dedicated, qualified people serving in public office, we also have quite a number who I seriously doubt could survive in the private sector. I let you speculate upon who they might be.

The bottom line is, unless businesspeople like you are willing to step up, none of the things you hate about government are going to change — but they are likely to get worse.


  1. Doña Keating4:43 PM

    It is for precisely some of the reasons above that the other always-ignored half of anonymous posters choose to participate as such. Hostile elements, anonymous or otherwise, do not hesitate to conduct invasive searches or hurl defamatory comments -- simply because one dared to disagree, sometimes too intelligently. At other times, it isn't angry discussants who do this at all, but lurkers who quietly choose who they dislike and will stalk.

    Forcing everyone to reveal themselves is a short term solution to a larger problem, just as it is to scapegoat anonymity and suggest hostile rhetoric is fine as long as you sign your name to it. Also, equating comments on blogs or new stories with Letters to the Editor muddles the issue. Traditionally, the interaction between newspaper readers and the publishers/editors/etc. was limited to LTE. With blogs and comments to news stories, the conversation is between participants. Media has evolved, and any effort to elucidate the distinctions will seem lame to those who haven't completely made the leap. That being said, moderation should increase to quickly remove clearly disruptive elements (not simply those who challenge).

    With public office, anything important enough to change is worth fighting for. Exposing one's life can be worth it, and on several occasions I’ve seriously considered it. The major impediment from my perspective is uninformed (sometimes willfully) rhetoric which influences decision-making, or constituents who are contrarian simply because they can be. This increases an elected’s workload, and leads to inefficient governance or burnout. Coupled with the media and public’s desire to search for and expose needles in the haystack, the list of those willing to engage or serve will continue to shorten whilst productive and equally influential (but less personally invasive) avenues of change are chosen. In any case, arguing for a sensible level of privacy whilst advocating increased exposure is counter intuitive.

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I disagree on a couple of points, but that's what reasonable debate is all about.

    I don't believe forcing everyone to reveal who they are is any kind of "scapegoat" at all. Everyone is entitled to their opinion - no matter if actual facts influence it or not. But part of the responsibility of voicing your opinion publicly is to be willing to be identified as author of that opinion.

    Electronic delivery of that opinion as opposed to printed delivery is nothing more than the evolution of the media in which the opinion is expressed. In my view, the same rules should apply. The debate - be it informed and/or influenced by facts - or not, can still go on, but at least readers know who the debaters are by name, not by some pseudonym. However, with that also comes the risk (or responsibility) of being publicly exposed as someone who is uninformed at best, or as someone unwilling to be influenced by actual facts at worst. Is increasing the transparency of the debate - and the debaters - a bad thing? I don't think so.

    You make an argument for "moderation," but doesn't that basically constitute censorship? I'd err on the side of less "moderation" allowing anything to be said, as long as those who say it are willing to be identified with their stated opinion. In other words, say whatever you please, but if you don't have the cojones to sign your name to what you say, than keep it to yourself.

    Finally, as far as government participation is concerned, we need smart people like you to get involved all levels. We have dumbed down governance to the point that unqualified people routinely make billion dollar decisions with our tax dollars that impact us all, for absolutely no other reason than because they are the only ones willing to step forward and do it. And unless people of your caliber are willing to become involved, it will never change.

  3. Doña Keating7:53 PM

    You’re welcome – and thank you.

    I didn’t suggest that forcing disclosure was scapegoating. It is focusing on anonymity as if it alone is the issue regarding increasingly hostile participation in public forums. As for the responsibility of voicing one’s opinion, I believe that starts and ends with quality and content, not identification. Anonymous speech is constitutionally protected, and responsibility also resides with ensuring its allowance.

    The evolution of media is far beyond the transference from print to electronic medium. The level of engagement and interactivity is also impacted by definition (i.e., blogs). Just as a roundtable is not a town hall, even though both involve speakers and participants. I would suggest if more focused on the veracity of what was said vs. who was saying it, the tendency for ad hominem would decrease. Transparency is not a bad thing until it needlessly jeopardises the innocent to corral vocal minorities. Civil debate which protects privacy isn’t a bad thing, either. Online debate clubs have been doing it, and well, for years.

    Let’s not kid ourselves: we’re both talking about censorship. You’re willing to suppress speech because you find anonymity objectionable. I’m willing to do so when the nature of public communication becomes harmful. The suggestion that anonymous speech is due to a lack of cojones ignores the very real economic or political threat private citizens (human rights, whistleblowers, dissidents) can face for simply participating in important discourse.

    No argument with your comment about dumbed down governance, but elected office isn’t the only path to achieving objectives. Smart people like me have been changing the status quo for decades without it. And given the amount of corporate influence on policy,…