A lesson that transcends sports
On Sunday, my husband was one of more than 100 reporters at the Seahawks-Broncos game in Seattle. When the schedule came out in April, we joked he should get me a press credential so I could write about my favorite athlete. But I cover local politics. How could I justify writing about Peyton Manning?
Maybe write about what a real leader looks like, my husband suggested.
That’s not fair to compare sports to government, I said. Professional athletes get their jobs because they are talented. As long as they can play well (and not have TMZ leak a tape of them punching a woman), they’ll keep their jobs. Politicians get their jobs because they are the best at selling a message. Once elected, they worry about losing their jobs. The NFL is a billion-dollar industry. Democracy is … a billion-dollar industry. But while the NFL has millions of fans, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch games or buy NFL apparel. With government, you can not vote, not know the names of elected officials, not even realize what city you live in — but you participate by paying taxes to help fund public schools, streets, water and sewer lines, parks, emergency services and the criminal justice system. So again, not a fair comparison because you have so many participants who will hate the system no matter what.
And I’m not talking about NFL overtime rules.
I was thinking about all this Monday, when I was the only reporter covering a joint workshop between the Vancouver City Council and 49th District Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie and Sen. Annette Cleveland. Now, here are people, who, unlike NFL players, can directly impact lives by deciding how much people pay in taxes. (After the Broncos lost on Sunday, I channeled my frustration into cleaning the hall closet, but I still recognized it’s only a game.)
To summarize Monday’s workshop: It’s the public’s fault. Officials talked about how they wish they could engage the public, and that if only the public could take the time to understand why officials need more money to spend on infrastructure and if only the public would stop falling for the scare tactics used by lawmakers who don’t want progress, everything would be better. (Let’s not forget the Washington Supreme Court has held the Legislature in contempt for its lack of progress on fixing the way the state pays for public education. The McCleary decision was mentioned Monday, but more in a woe-is-us way.)
Basically, local officials came across as tone-deaf as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did during his press conference last week.
They want public engagement? The public can barely be bothered to vote, particularly in Clark County, which consistently has some of the lowest turnouts of registered voters in the state. The public has made it clear it doesn’t want to engage. Surprise! The public doesn’t want a condescending lecture about what happens when costs outpace revenues. The only consistent message I’ve heard from people who do bother to attend public meetings is that they have learned to make do on a smaller budget and they want officials to do the same.
State lawmakers may well have to raise the sales tax in light of McCleary. The Vancouver City Council may have to find a new funding source for roads. But don’t pretend people will suddenly be happy to pay higher taxes and fees if they would just take a moment to understand the plight of elected officials and engage in a dialogue.
“We have aging infrastructure that at some point is going to fall apart. And I don’t think our public widely understands that,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt. He suggested a law requiring signs on bridges alerting drivers of the year the bridge was built and its condition.
“The point is, making our public more aware. Because when the public is made more aware, frankly the pressure comes to us as elected officials to do something about it, right?” Leavitt said. “So it’s probably a bit of a double-edged sword for us decisionmakers. I’m convinced that if our public had a broader understanding of the issue with the aged infrastructure on the I-5 crossing we may have made better progress to date, and withstood some of the opposition that was out there. The loud, minority opposition that was out there,” he said.
City lobbyist Mark Brown said there’s a proposal to make the state transportation department update its website with a list of 3,000 state-owned bridges, their ratings and whether they are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The list would be required to be updated annually. (Currently WSDOT has this.)
Said Wylie, “We need a deeper understanding of the public. Perhaps signage is a good place to start.”
But there’s also a need, she said, to “create that grass-roots awareness and immunize people against falsehoods and confusion. And that’s a much bigger information campaign that requires a lot of resources and commitments on a lot of different levels.”
As earnest as officials sounded about trying to crack the code of public engagement, the lack of it in politics isn’t a new problem. In a 1982 interview, Mike Royko, the late Pulitizer-Prize winning Chicago newspaper columnist, said, “This is an incredibly dumb country, politically. Your average American can name the all-star team in football or basketball or baseball and the batting averages of everybody on his team, but he doesn’t know who is own alderman or congressman is, and he really doesn’t bother to find out. At the same time, he wants everything. This country really wants government to do everything.”
Last night I told my husband about the meeting. He said in the NFL, the only players who complain about not getting enough support from fans are the ones on losing teams. Players on winning teams know that if they do their jobs well, everything else will fall in line.
Maybe that’s a lesson that transcends sports.