Fresh Eyes: In search of ‘professional’ politicians

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Phillip Gilfusby Phillip Gilfus

People often complain about “professional” or “career” politicians. It turns out we could probably use more of them. Government is the only sector I can think of that actively encourages amateurs with little to no experience in the actual organization to take the top leadership positions, making decisions on how to run a city, county or state.

It’s not just the “rookies”; even those state and local elected officials who have been re-elected multiple times do not seem to be equipped with effective methods to inform citizens. They need to regularly explain how a zoning change affects their district, how citizens can be more involved on local boards and commissions, and how each level of government really works.

For instance, how often do you hear from your elected officials, outside of election season? Look up your local city official or county commissioner and see if they have a Twitter account or Facebook profile. There are some leaders in Guilford County who tweet, from Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp (@RayTrappDist8) to Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny (@zackmatheny), as well as others. Since some local governments provide electeds with electronic devices, it only makes sense that they should all have an online presence to share their activities and elicit public feedback.

That’s a simple, “free” way for them to connect, but let’s go to the next level: How many of our local and state officials have regular constituent meetings? Outside of political party and campaign events, it’s often difficult to meet an elected official face to face, including our members of Congress. I realize that a formal town-hall event can bring out the more, shall we say, “fervent” voters, but a mixer at an area business or venue is great way to increase citizen engagement and bring out the neighborhood. Greensboro Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann has her monthly “Conversation and Coffee with Nancy” events at various establishments, and even a few Winston-Salem councilmembers practice this. This not only allows an elected official to meet with constituents but also gives them a chance to spotlight different businesses in their district (and sends some extra customers their way).

Also, how many of your politicians send out e-newsletters? A Facebook page can provide a platform for them to share information, but (much to my chagrin) many folks are not on Facebook. Because I’m a nerd, when I moved within the city of Greensboro recently, I e-mailed my state legislator to get on their list. My “old” NC House Rep. Cecil Brockman always responded well via e-mail, and my “new” representative Rep. Ralph Johnson seems to be in the same vein. I received Rep. Johnson’s e-newsletter the other day which, while not quite succinct, at least shows an effort at constituent communication. Councilman Dan Besse of Winston-Salem also sends out e-newsletters on a regular basis.

We all hate those direct-mail pieces that clog up our mailboxes during election season. Yet, what mail do you receive from your elected officials when they are not running for re-election? If the answer is zero, then that states the priorities of politicians and political parties — that they are less interested in governing than just winning elections.

For those elected officials who argue that they don’t have the money to mail information to their constituents, I would have them look to that monthly bank statement they get from their campaign account. If politicians invested their campaign donations in a monthly mailer, sharing important city, county, and state agency contact numbers and information, how much more would that pay off when re-election time came? Wouldn’t that make it easier to ask for campaign donations when it’s going to giving out vital information instead of self-promotional campaign material?

Then there’s the dirty secret: Sending needed information to constituents on an ongoing basis is the best “self-promotional campaign material” an elected official can generate.

Our elected officials spend so much of time campaigning and then dealing with the crises du jour of government that they don’t take the time to seek out information about how to do their job in the best professional way. Whether it’s subscribing (for free!) to Governing magazine, attending conferences to network with fellow elected officials across the state and nation or asking themselves how they can be engaging and innovative with informing constituents, it goes a long way to becoming a “professional career politician” that voters are more than happy to keep in office.

Phillip Gilfus, in another life, served as a county commissioner in Cumberland County in 2010 and holds a masters in public administration. He tweets at @unaffiliatedvoternc and can be contacted at [email protected]