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Tucson Weekly Media Meltdown

A Prime Reason So Few Candidates Are Running For The Statehouse.

By Emil Franzi

JULY 20, 1998:  SUDDENLY THE MEDIA are asking another big question: Why aren't more people running for office? Since they noticed that fewest candidates had filed for the state Legislature in history, the subject has been tossed around on the TV news and was a front-page lead for the local daily on a recent Sunday morning.

The media attribute the lack of candidates to a variety of reasons: low pay, too many safe districts, term limits, a "lack of civility" among elected officials and abuse from the public. One former pol-turned-lobbyist even lamented, "It isn't fun anymore."

What most of stories didn't mention was the most obvious reason: The stories about the lack of candidates were the first real local political stories any of the local media had run all year. The real answer for all the analysts trying to figure out why nobody is running is simple: Like the media itself, too many people no longer consider elective politics to be important. Why are you so surprised?

Jay Leno once described politics as show biz for the ugly. (Always thought that was radio myself.) The almost complete disdain modern establishment journalism exhibits for the political process, including its failure to adequately cover candidates seeking public office, is the largest single contributing factor to the decline in those seeking it. One prime example: a local candidate for the state Legislature asked a local TV reporter if the station was going to cover his race. He was told they never cover primaries. He explained that his race would be decided in by the primary, since no one had filed to run in the opposing primary. He got the same answer. Translated, the policy is: "We don't give a shit." Gee, why should you the voter? Or the potential candidate?

The next largest factor is media inability to tell us--or even grasp--what it is the folks we vote for do after they get there. Best example: We get a cursory view of what our legislators pass, but the local dailies who are fully equipped with Phoenix reporters don't bother to report simple vote tallies, like which senator voted for what.

And there seems to be a space limitation on what can be covered at a City Council or Board of Supervisors meeting. If the agenda is crowded, most items are ignored, as are vote tallies. Some of those votes might make somebody mad enough to run against the elected officials who cast them--if they knew about them.

The standard reasons given by the usual suspects--incumbents, lobbyists, consultants, and party "leaders"--for declining numbers of candidates are crapola. Low pay? The state legislature pays $15,000 per year, along with other goodies, like an $85-per-day, tax-free per diem to lawmakers outside Maricopa County, plus mileage, for what is a part-time job. Are there special sessions? Always have been, some longer than recent episodes. Does the per diem kick in for those? You bet. There were more candidates back when the pay was only $2,400 a year (and the per diem $20) in the '70s, and the quality of those candidates was at least as good as now. (Some think better.)

Too many safe districts? There always were. And today's districts are a lot more competitive than the weenie party leaders and cautious consultants make them out to be, because fewer people vote a straight ticket. And that still doesn't explain the lack of primaries, which safe districts for one party should help encourage, not discourage.

Term limits may have caused some folks to wait until next time to run. The jury's still out on that one; we'll know in two years. But its effect is over-rated and usually comes from lifer pols and hangers-on who didn't like term limits in the first place. As to a "lack of civility" in the Legislature discouraging candidates, that is clearly in-house politically narcissistic bullshit.

Patrick Henry didn't run for the Virginia House of Burgesses to get along with his colleagues, particularly the ones wearing powdered wigs. Neither did Sam Adams up the road in Massachusetts, nor did John Quincy Adams. They ran to implement an agenda, as have many since, from Abe Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt. And that, folks, is the other real problem. No agendas.

Political parties are now afraid to have them--might offend somebody in the middle or, worse, in the media. Party platforms are open jokes. Can any of the fast-diminishing group of people who actually participate in the affairs of the two major parties tell you what's in any of them? If you stand for nothing, how do you motivate people to carry a meaningless banner? Political parties have degenerated into vehicles for soft campaign money and little more.

There used to be mammoth fights over who controlled the two local parties, with the weenies always whining that the major disputes over issues were "divisive." So they quit having them--and wonder why they now meet in phone booths. A few years back some folks were bitching about the GOP being taken over by the "Christian Right." The real phenomenon was that anybody cared enough about it to take it over.

It shows at all levels of government. People get elected as nominal members of a political party not based on any set agendas. It then becomes impossible for them to have a coherent program and we get the mush we have now in Phoenix or Sacramento or Washington, D.C. Political parties used to resolve most internal differences before the election, not after. They used to be afraid to offend the interest groups that made up their coalition. They no longer have that many interest groups to worry about, because the interest groups--from the tobacco lobby to environmentalists--have gone bipartisan and deal with candidates directly.

This would work if the interest groups themselves were big enough to generate their own candidacies, but they aren't and haven't. And when they occasionally do, the media refer to them as "single-issue" candidates and wonder openly why they don't have a broader base.

Many people still participate in politics, but through issue-oriented organizations ranging from Greenpeace to the NRA. Others don't run for office; they file lawsuits. Those who want to change public policy have noticed that the accent has changed from legislating solutions to litigating them. The judicial branch now does the legislating for us, as you may have noticed over the current educational finance crisis. Just as bad, the lawyers have replaced party leaders in telling elected officials what they can and cannot do as they second-guess what the judiciary will think. Why run for potted plant?

Americans and Arizonans care as much as ever about their society. Unfortunately too many of them have decided that the standard political process is breaking down and they're too busy elsewhere to take time to fix it. And the media have decided they don't really give a rat's ass and have abdicated their responsibility to conduct decent political reporting. They don't lead--they try to follow, usually the results of the latest focus group or marketing consultant. That's why national magazines like Time and Newsweek look more and more like People and you can't find out who's running for governor in the next state. Here, you can't find out who's running for the state House in your own district.

So why would you be surprised if, someday, nobody did?

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