Try these tips for assessing candidates

October 1, 2018

Let me first make clear that I like and admire politicians.

During several decades as a professional lobbyist in Washington, D.C., including years lobbying in different states, I worked with scores of “politicians.” (For present purposes, a politician is an elected public officeholder or a candidate for elective public office.)

While certainly not infallible, most politicians I have known are honorable and genuinely want to do the “right thing.” They want to serve honestly and effectively; they want to achieve positive outcomes for their constituencies and for the nation. Sadly, they do not always succeed. Both they and their constituents are too often frustrated and disappointed.

As we make our choices for the November elections, how might we achieve better results in this great political game? More specifically, how can we identify (and encourage) those candidates most likely to be effective in public office? While ideally avoiding excessive bromides and platitudes, here are some suggested do’s and don’ts with a few how-to’s included:

1. DO learn about the political issues of greatest import in your life. In the near future, significant decisions will be made in Washington and Charleston about jobs and the economy, the environment, health care, our schools, our transportation system, not to mention war and peace and many other issues.

2. DO read widely and discuss these issues with those you respect. Especially pay attention to those who have spent much of their careers studying, researching, teaching, reporting, opining and acting on these issues. 3. DO learn where the candidates stand. This is not always an easy task. Candidates and their spokespersons have been known to exaggerate and distort on more than a few occasions. And to be honest, most significant issues are complex and do not usually lend themselves to quick, short answers.

4. DO insist that the candidates meet often with as many local civic, business, professional and “special interest” groups as possible to explain their views and positions and answer questions. Attend those meetings and ask questions important to you. Formal candidate debates sponsored by civic organizations and the media — although they have limitations — are still one of the best ways to learn what the candidates believe and know, how they respond under pressure and how well they express themselves. West Virginians should be wary of candidates who refuse to participate in such legitimate debates.

5. DO consider a candidate’s personal and professional history. Experience and intelligence definitely count, but we should not rely solely on campaign bios for that information. Look at what those who have worked with or for a candidate have to say. Success in previous endeavors is suggestive but great political leaders in history, such as Churchill, Truman, Thatcher and Reagan have had mixed records before great political achievements. A quality that is hard to measure but may be critical is empathy; how well does a candidate know and understand the dreams, desires and disappointments of

others? Closely related is a candidate’s record of generosity and philanthropy. A record of volunteering to help others is suggestive. And certainly not least among desirable personal attributes is a sense of humor. Can the candidate laugh at himself or herself?

6. DO look for candidates with a record of working productively with others of different backgrounds, ideologies and points of view. We cannot allow bipartisanship to fall out of style. Too often nothing gets done in Congress or the state legislature because of partisan calculations. Just as in kindergarten, it is important to be able to play (and work) with one another.

7. DON’T rely on social media or ideological websites for all your political information about issues or candidates. The notoriously unverified allegations often found there are simply not to be trusted unless you have great confidence in the original source.

8.DON’T rely too much on campaign commercials or other political advertisements, whether produced and paid for by the candidates, by political parties or by third parties with a particular ideological ax to grind.

9.DON’T readily accept candidates who show overdeveloped egos. Self-confidence is important and desirable; braggadocio is not. When you are examining candidates, consider how much they credit their staff and other supporters versus taking all the credit for themselves. How often do they talk about “me” or “I” instead of “us” or “we.” Do they accept blame when blame is due or look to shift it to others?

10. DON’T reward candidates who abuse and churn through staff. Staff with long experience not only perform better but their tenure demonstrates their personal loyalty and regard for their boss.

11. DON’T let slogans and labels replace clear thinking. Too often, terms like “socialism,” “amnesty,” “welfare” and “terrorists” are substitutes for rational analysis. Let us all strive to consider and think clearly. What are the outcomes we seek and how can we best achieve them?

12. DON’T forget that political campaigns cost money; most candidates must raise substantial financial support; and while all constituents are equal, we should not be surprised that politicians in office pay at least a little more attention to those who help fund their campaigns. So two final bits of advice: First, consider making your own contributions; even small amounts are noticed. Second, support campaign finance reform that requires all individual and corporate contributors to be identified in the public record.

If this list of do’s and don’ts seems a bit tedious, maybe a little too much work, bear in mind what a 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt advised more than a century ago: “The first duty of an American citizen is that he shall work in politics.” And then remember that all this will be meaningless if we do not VOTE!

Aubrey King, a graduate of Marshall University, recently retired to Huntington after a career as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and a lecturer at the University of Maryland and George Washington University.

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