MY POLITICAL CAREER

Joseph Mansfield

 

Membership in the City Commission required that one be at least 25 years old.  But I was 24, fresh out of the Army and ready for something new, and I would turn 25 before election day.  I thought no one would question my age, and no one did.  Thus began my first campaign for public office.

Qualification for candidacy required that one submit a petition for candidacy signed by at least 25 registered voters of the constituency.  So I wrote my petition, drew in space for 50 signatures, lest any signature be challenged, and began visiting any and every person I knew who might be willing to sign my petition.  The third or fourth person I approached kindly explained to me that one does not carry one’s own petition.  One’s friends and backers do that.  Think fast ... Ah!  Yes, of course.  But I am not sponsored by friends and backers, nor pledged or obligated to any person or position, nor bound by stale precedent.  The 50 signatures were quickly gathered, the petition duly delivered.

Election campaigns in my home town, within living memory, had always been conducted orally, as one encountered folks interested in one’s candidacy.  I broke precedent again.  During the six weeks leading up to the election I published my platform in the local weekly paper, one item each week, as well as talking with everyone I could get to stand still for a bit.

In our town one ran for the office of “commissioner”.  The top vote getter in the election was then declared mayor, the runner up was treasurer, and the second runner up recorder.  So nothing prevented me from dreaming that out of a slate of seven runners I might become the next mayor, while I felt pretty sure of getting at least one of the lesser positions.

It was not to be.  Out of seven I came in seventh, with about half as many votes as the sixth place man.  In fact I had fewer votes than I had had signatures on my petition.

Four years later city election came around again, and what did we see?  The candidates all published platform statements in the paper.  And they said pretty much what I had said the previous time around.  Moreover, in the next ten years, the commissioners implemented my platform almost to the letter.  The fantasies of the young dreamer soon became the accepted local wisdom.

So.  Did I lose the election?

 

*     *     *

 

I ran for election because I thought I had an imaginative, innovative mind which could develop ways to meet the needs of our town, and solutions for its problems.  Losing, indeed, coming in last, was not a pleasant experience, though it was understandable.  I was young, green, and unknown.  Unknown; that is, anyone would have recognized my face, but no one actually knew me.  What they did know is that I was different.  I did not follow any herd.  I did my own thinking.  One who would hold public office ought to be a Regular Guy, one of whom others can say, He’s pretty much like me.  People did not have to know me well to know I was not Regular.

Thus some twenty years later, when I again gave thought to sitting on the City Commission, I did not seek election.  Rather, one of the (by then five counting the mayor) commissioners had resigned, and the remaining four were preparing to name someone to fill the empty slot until the next election.  Ah, here was my chance to get on the commission without having to stand for a public vote!

I approached first the commissioner I knew best; she said she would vote for me if someone else would make the nomination.  Then I spoke with another commissioner, whom I knew from old Jaycee days, and he agreed to nominate me as well as vote for me.  I ignored the mayor, who at that time was a particularly cantankerous chap; I thought it best just to have the votes of the three other commissioners, in which case the mayor’s position would not matter.

The third commissioner was hard to find.  I went a number of times to his house—no one home.  I rushed to a number of places where he had been sighted.  Could I have written him, or called him on the phone?  Of course.  But that was not my way.  I fancy I am a communicator.  For any given communication I choose the medium and method carefully.  I thought a cold call, face to face talk was the best way to approach this commissioner whom I had never met and of whom I knew nothing.  And he was not to be found.

Meanwhile, I did start attending the meetings of the Commission.  What I saw was an eye-opener.  My notion of what it meant to be on the Commission was altogether wrong.  I saw there was no room for innovation, for creativity, for imagination.  I discovered that all the decisions that counted were effectively preempted by state statutes applicable to all cities, and by conditions attached to federal grants.  The commissioners hired and fired, adjusted tax rates, talked to prospective industrialists.  But at bottom they were expediters of canned programs and projects handed down from above.  There was next to nothing going on there that I would have been the least interested in.

So it was right well I had never found that third commissioner.  Nor did I see the others again.  I let my candidacy be quietly forgotten.  And thus ended my political career.

 

*     *     *

 

The City of Dunlap was chartered in the late nineteenth century.  At some later point the charter was surrendered and the city government went out of business.  In 1929 my grandfather and Sam Wilson became the prime movers and workers in seeking a new charter.

In preparation for my first bid for election I had gone to City Hall and read the city charter and corpus of ordinances.  Until then I had known nothing of Granddaddy’s part in setting up the city.  The charter was obviously copied from a standard form.  But the ordinances ...  My granddaddy had written every one.  Nor did he have to tell me that.  No one else could have written those ordinances.  No one else used words like he did.

At this remove I remember clearly just one of those ordinances, one requiring that female dogs in heat not be allowed to run loose on the streets.  No doubt many other cities legislated the same thing.

But you can be quite sure that no city except Dunlap ever titled its ordinance, On the Confinement of Bitches when they are Proud.

 

© 2002 Joseph Mansfield

 

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