Gettin' Political In The Valley

by Robert Herold

Thus far, the politics in the new city out in the Valley seems a play on the theme of "amateur night at the races." We have races. We have, except for a couple candidates, amateurs -- political amateurs, that is. The question is, in the end, will residents get responsible, informed, thoughtful, directed, legitimate government? I think the jury is still out.

Predictably, the Valley faces circumstances that make practicing politics difficult. Unlike Liberty Lake (or Cheney, Davenport, Deer Park, Coeur d'Alene or even Bellevue), the Valley has no center -- no place to call home. The Valley Mall, Mirabeau Point, even I-90, define the place today; Let's hope that, as time goes by, a more appropriate city center will emerge.

Then there is the lack of political infrastructure and organization. Apart from the few activists who finally managed to win the incorporation battle -- albeit on a close vote in a poorly attended election -- there seems to be a vacuum, waiting, as vacuums do, to be filled. Now, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. Elections will be held, candidates will be elected and governing will begin.

As for overcoming these obstacles, I have a suggestion: Get political. Politics isn't easy in the Valley. Actually, it's difficult throughout the state, and political life in Spokane is nothing to write home about, either. The lowest turnouts at elections come in those not held in conjunction with statewide or national elections. Without political organizations, come election time, it's every man and woman (and their billboards and yard signs) for him- or herself.

We look in vain for any Valley candidate to embrace the vocation of politics. Indeed, we look in vain for any candidate even to mention the word. Well, a few candidates have mentioned the word -- then, in the next breath, they say, "and I'm not a politician." Let's face facts: Members of a city council are, by definition, politicians, and the sooner we all get over that, the better.

The best thing the new cadre of leaders could do for the Valley's future is somehow to invest in political organization. For some reason long ago, we decided we couldn't tolerate political parties at the local level, but the Valley, like Spokane, needs something like them.

Those in office need a following, and voters need cues and labels to help them triangulate their own beliefs. Without political organizations, we get just the kinds of campaigns we seem to be getting now: "I'm a family man, I'm pro-business and I've lived here all my life." If the Valley candidates could tackle this daunting issue of political organization in a meaningful way, they could energize their citizenry and reach success sooner than most new cities.

Politics gets a bad rap in America, but it shouldn't. Politics is about how we order -- that is, govern -- life in the commons. Through politics we work through the questions that occupy our common existence. Answers to these questions result in governmental action (or inaction, as the case might be). Political scientist David Easton termed the process "the authoritative allocation of values."

Every candidate who stands for office in the Valley election is engaged in what is a noble effort to authoritatively allocate values. This is the business of the politician, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

Yet we still run away from politics. We don't much like the word "power," and, of course, we all say we want smaller government.

The issues don't change all that much from town to town, from state to state, or even over time. Alexis de Tocqueville identified the lasting debates when he wrote Democracy in America more than 160 years ago. As the French gentleman saw it, democracy here took the form of a tension between the claims of the individual and claims of the community. Through politics, we mediate those claims and resultant disputes: liberty and justice, independence and interdependence, obligation and entitlement.

Some might say that life in the Valley shouldn't be subjected to such esoteric analysis. They would be wrong. The new Valley government will be called upon to balance claims of property rights against claims of the community for better planning. The new government will be called upon to seek a political balance between claims that the marketplace should dictate the community's direction, and other claims that want to shape the kind of marketplace the Valley should seek.

When some candidates say they want to turn Sprague back into a two-way street, what are they really saying? They are saying, I believe, that the one-way couplet, while no doubt efficient, creates an inequitable impact on street businesses. It's a tough call, but how can elected officials -- politicians -- strike the best balance? This issue is but the tip of a massive iceberg of issues that the new city council will be called upon to referee.

It can be a rude awakening for amateurs thrust into public service. But the Valley will prosper if it finds skilled politicians who understand that the greater good may not always please the vocal minority and that the most effective government isn't always the most efficient.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.