Failed Relationships, Sweat-Soaked Spreadsheets, and Uncomfortable Patronage Promises: A Look at the Public Office Pathway
Last night, I watched the final installment of Netflix's The Keepers. (What can I say? I'm a sucker for patriarchy-smashing true crime!). It's in the last episode (don't worry – this isn't a spoiler) that we meet C. T. Wilson, member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Wilson, a lawyer, is an Army veteran and the first Black delegate elected in Charles County. He's also a former foster youth, an adoptee, and a sexual abuse survivor who has spent the past several years advocating for legislation to extend the statute of limitations in child abuse cases in Maryland. He does so by telling, in detail, his story of prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of his adoptive father.
In a moment that is almost a side-note to the main story of The Keepers, Wilson is filmed saying that he is absolutely sure that going on the record, over and over again, as a survivor of repeated sexual abuse through his childhood and teens is certain to end his career in electoral politics. And I definitely hope that's not true.
Opposed by the Catholic Church and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Wilson's bill to extend the statute of limitations in child abuse cases languished without a vote throughout the 2015 and 2016 sessions. This year, however, Wilson tried again and managed to get the bill on to the House floor, where his colleagues voted unanimously to support it. In early April, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed the bill into law, along with three related laws: a sweeping "no means no" measure that removes a centuries-old requirement that rape victims demonstrate they tried to physically resist their assailants; a new law that forbids police from destroying rape kits for at least 20 years; and an additional law that removes the distinction between vaginal rape and other types of sexual assault, a change that helps victims by making the law match people's everyday definition of rape. It's clear that sexual safety is finally getting some traction in Maryland, and Wilson is a big part of that development.
Watching videos of Wilson from his first term, I wondered how he'd managed to get himself into office. His testimony on behalf of the extension for statute of limitations bill includes a personal narrative that varies drastically from the carefully crafted stories of young candidates coming up through national training programs. Wilson says things like, "Jobs? Man, I've been fired from every job I ever had." And while I've known plenty of candidates to boast that they only need an hour or two a night of sleep, Wilson admits to only sleeping an hour or two a night because the darkness makes him feel vulnerable, left alone with himself and memories of being beaten and sodomized.
While most candidates push a fiction of flawless integrity, Wilson talks about the rage and volatility that boils right below his surface and declares, "There's no amount of counseling or talking that's going to bring me back to normal." Even when he talks about his military service, the point is how many times he lost rank. Finally, in trying to curry favor for his bill, Wilson urges his fellow legislators to "stop protecting the monsters like the one who created this monster" -- and he's not talking about his abuser; he's talking about himself.
Yet Wilson, a graduate of Howard University School of Law who was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2010 with just under 20% of the votes, was re-elected in 2014, in the midst of all of this self-disclosure, this time garnering almost 27% of the vote. Voters clearly like and trust him, I have to say I agree with them.
A couple of weeks ago, before I saw the end of The Keepers and started thinking about C. T. Wilson, I had the pleasure of guest-presenting at one of Urban Habitat's replicated Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI) programs – this one led by the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego. I was lucky to find a flight that allowed me to avoid getting up at 4am but still arrive at the Labor Council before noon so that I could watch the panel on electoral pipelining that preceded my session on inside-outside strategy and strategic networking.
There was a lot of truth-telling going on in that panel, and I learned so much from the amazing panelists, which included an elected San Diego Unified School District Board Member, a former candidate for San Diego City Council, a seated National City Park and Recreation and Advisory Board member, and a seasoned campaign manager and field representative – all of them people of color. Still, as I sat on the sidelines and listened to the panelists talk about endless hours door-knocking, the possibility of failed marriages run into the ground by campaign focus, getting smeared by your opponent, who-endorsed-whom and the resulting tensions, daily numbers, and, basically, how emotionally and physically exhausting it is to be a candidate for political office, I wondered how the leadership cohort was taking it all in.
While I individually admired each of the panelists, something about the way the conversation was going concerned me. Maybe they were being too truthful? Or maybe there was some other truth that needed to come first, before the one they were speaking?
I finally settled on a bottom-line worry: How are we ever going to get good people in office when we keep telling them that the path to get there is strewn with failed relationships, sweat-soaked spreadsheets, and uncomfortable patronage promises? Maybe we should just lie to them!
Or maybe it's not about lying. Maybe it's about the emphasis on the toll candidacy takes on people. And it's not just this panel -- it's a phenomenon I've noticed many times in developing training experiences in support of the electoral pathway. When candidates get together to talk about public office there's a kind of social Darwinism frame, something along the lines of whose feet were the most blistered from precinct walking, whose knuckles were the bloodiest from door knocking, who was most able to underplay their values about X in order to get an endorsement from Y. My discomfort with the frame isn't that it's not "true." I know these folks walked their feet off, scraped their knuckles to the bone knocking on door after door. My discomfort comes from what I see when I look around an audience and notice who is drawn in by that conversation and who is tuned out.
Talk about stamina in candidacy lights up the competitive types, the thicker-skin types. Often (but not always) men, and often (but not always!) white men, those drawn to candidacy-as-stamina have a nice chunk of ego involved, and it's probably not a surprise that for these types of people, once the goal of being elected is attained, their leadership style is basically 100% Lone Wolf.
Meanwhile, the "Be prepared to have your heart and body broken" talk turns off more sensitive types and more collaborative types, those who tend to operate from a "collective leadership" position. Often (but not always!) these potential candidates are women, issues organizers, movement people, folks who want to move the machinery of justice, but who can't (or won't) imagine doing it alone.
So, it's not surprising that when we focus on campaign strategy in our public office pathway trainings, rather than leaders committed to constituency-focused governance, we end up with leaders who don't check in with the base, who define the terms of "representation" as having been met the moment they were elected rather than through ongoing conversation and interaction with those who put them in office. Those of us who develop such training programs are the ones responsible for their outcomes -- we most often talk about leadership as individualistic, authoritarian, and top-down – maybe even atavistic – and so we get leaders who operate individually, with a sense of authority, and consider it their right (maybe even calling) to do so.
In San Diego, after the pipelining panel and when it was time for my session, I decided to scrap a big chunk of my presentation plan and talk instead about what it would look like to be a public official who was deeply committed to a collective leadership frame, and I have to say that I saw a lot of relief around the room. Folks who are drawn to the kind of training that a Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute offers are most often there because they want to see justice in the world, because they want to see the voices of their communities represented, and because they have issues they want to champion -- and they are most often collaborative and less self-confident than the participants in some other training programs.
And that's great because these folks, in my mind, are apt to make the strongest public officials. They are less prone to co-optation and more likely to work collectively with not only their colleagues inside the system but also the base outside the system who has inspired them to lead in the first place. And in training them, we need to be teaching them how to stay the course of authentic, collective leadership and giving them the tools to do so.
It may be hard to imagine what collective leadership would look like in an appointed or elected capacity, but some of us know leaders that operate just that way. I remember being asked to attend a small meeting years ago at a radical Bay Area grassroots organization. There were five other folks at the table, and I was surprised (and delighted) to see that one of them was a member of the Board of Supervisors. Later, I mentioned to the meeting organizer that I was impressed her org could just call up this big-city supervisor and get him to attend. She laughed and told me I had it all wrong – the supervisor had actually called the meeting; she'd just taken care of the logistics.
When I train future public leaders, I give them as many examples like this as I can because these examples are the opposite of what they will hear from agency staff, from patrons, and even from big-time leadership training programs. They will hear instead that their job is to represent from a distance, to use their best judgement because they were elected for their solo decision-making capacity. In one California city where I've worked, Planning Commissioners were told that it was "against the rules" for them to talk to nonprofit organizations. They were to get all of their information for a project or policy vote from staff only. For many years, apparently, commissioners believed this fiction and went along with it, effectively shutting community voices out of the planning process.
We must train our leaders to resist that sort of manipulation, obviously, but also to take the lead in bringing the base to the decision-making table. What we need are leaders who call their constituents up (and in), who hold town halls on the regular, who admit that they were wrong, who are frank with their folks about the realities of being in office and what they need to be more successful. We need more public leaders like C. T. Wilson, who has said that when it comes to a vote, if his perspective differs from that of his constituents, he needs to get out there with the people to figure out what the gap is about.
But we can't get there if we keep training folks in the old-school model of individual, competitive leadership. We've got to start training would-be public officials in collective leadership.
Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.