Nothing Cures Post-Primary Blues Like a Dose of Reality TV

On Sept. 11, 2007, Yahoo asked, “What are you doing to remember Sept. 11?”

What better way to realize the triumph of freedom and democracy than by voting in your local primary?

After all, just about the only praise visiting French “equality” aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville gave us in 1835 was the strength of our local political involvement. The town hall meeting model at work.

However, I was faced with a tough choice:

A. I could represent by going to the Peace Path protest going on right below the windows of Agora headquarters

B. I could head off to my childhood district polls, like Joseph returning to Bethlehem to be counted for Caesar Augustus.

I turned for home. Wouldn’t my acting on a local scale for change be like a domino, hitting my fellow voter dominoes, until we created a path of change?

An admittedly poor yet sadly apt metaphor, because in local politics, it is the constituents who get toppled…

Incumbency Makes Democracy Go Round

Perhaps you’re OK with incumbency, dear reader. After all, you could say, if anyone will get something done, it’s someone who’s had four-plus years to make connections and alliances and hire relatives and friends for contract positions.

But that, of course, is not how the guv’ment spins it. But it does call it the incumbency advantage. With halfhearted copy, they cry, “Check out how incumbents have become more and more popular over the last two centuries!”

As if an incumbent’s popularity is a sign of an increasingly satisfied populace. But check it out, dear reader:

Symptom of Representative Success or Plain Laziness?phpPqzHo6

Looks to me like the lows come in times of war or socioeconomic upheaval. Well, what have we got before us? Not, surely, a time of Eisenhower innocence and jobs for all. So why the apathy, why the disinterest?

But let’s make a test case in a petri dish called Baltimore to see if disinterest in local politics is the first stage of a raving national disease.

Politics in the Petri Dish Called Baltimore

So unlike the majority of my fellow city dwellers, I did cast my ballot at the local elementary school. And I, among an even smaller number, stayed up for the 10 o’clock coverage…

After all, The Associated Press had already delivered the mayorship into first black woman mayor Shelia Dixon’s hands. It didn’t even mention the closest challenger — only that she was ahead. Is this not a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in reporting?

However, I was hanging on for the one “close” race.

The current city council president was a novice to citywide campaigning. Mrs. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stepped into the post after our former mayor Martin O’Malley defected for the greener pastures of the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis. (Nobody will be surprised to see him court Hillary next.)

Her challenger: “fresh-faced” Michael Sarbanes. His father, Paul, is the longest-serving senator in Maryland history.

When I first tuned in, the score was 46-44% in favor of the erstwhile “incumbent” — with 26% of votes counted.

Neck and neck…the news crews switched back and forth from the Rawlings-Blake camp to Michael Sarbanes’ supporters. The spread grew, I went into the next room, switched on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and paced the house.

Then at 60% of votes counted, the contest was over…the incumbent won! Final score: Rawlings-Blake — 49%, Sarbanes — 38%.

Hungry for a Fresh Face? VOTE BLIND!

At the dinner table last night, forks poised over our basil-buttered sockeye salmon and the family joked that everyone would vote if they knew there was a hot dinner and alcohol reward for civic participation.

With our glasses of white wine raised, we reviewed the choices for our 3rd District councilman.

The Incumbent:

Bobby Curran — his family business is politics, Irish political machine-style. Democrat.

He wasn’t afraid of his contenders. I quote from a Baltimore City Paper interview on July 18: “‘I want one more term,’ [Curran] says. ‘I feel I can get everything done in one more term. And then I want to groom someone to follow in my footsteps.’”

Groom someone to follow in his footsteps? Since when did Baltimore — or any blessed city in these United States — take dictation from Russian oligarchy?

But I shouldn’t fault him for the easily earned braggadocio. He’s simply demonstrating German sociologist Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy,” according to his book Political Parties. It states that no matter how autocratic or democratic a power structure is, it will inevitably tend toward oligarchy. The vehicle of inevitability? The apathy and indifference of the rank-and-file followers.

In Curran’s case, the family line is drying up. He took the district seat three terms ago, from his brother Mike, who’d been appointed by their dad, Joseph Sr., who died back in 1977. After that many terms of continuously amassed power, he really should get “everything” done — right?

It’s also why we didn’t know much more than the name of his “challengers.”

The Contenders:

Michael C. Hall

Norman E. Hamilton

“I voted for Hamilton,” I laughed, “only because I’d read an article in which he at least got coverage, versus Hall. Meaning a 0.00001% better chance.”

A second shout came from my right: “Oh, I voted for Hamilton, too. The name alone! (My family hails from the Hamilton neighborhood of the district).

And from across the table: “I voted for Hall. Not because I knew anything about him. But I saw Hamilton on TV. Wasn’t impressed. So Hall it had to be.”

Lovely. Because we are ignorant of some major gaffe, some whiff of campaign finance scandal, we’ll assume a man is better than his opponent. I tell you, these two campaigns were so poor, a Google search of their names turned up nary a hit. And neither knocked on my door or shook my hand at summer’s outdoor festivals. All together, the 14 districts showed a 79% display of the incumbency advantage.

Fortunately for us, the 2008 presidential election shall know none of these “local” foibles…and NO incumbency advantage.

But will voters show up?

Just Blame It on the Rain — Not the Oligarchy

From the streets of the Baltimore petri dish, 1st District: One election judge said on his umpteenth smoke break: “We won’t break 100 voters by 1 o’clock. This is the slowest I’ve ever seen it.”

But it’s only the primaries, you say.

Well, Baltimore is overwhelmingly Democrat. We’re talking every eight out of 10 people you see on the street. So by default, the primary becomes the real election.

Total reported voter turnout: 28%. That’s about 82,921 voters in a city of 631,366 souls. Yet I read there are 331,987 registered voters. I know, doesn’t quite match up. Let’s hope those Diebold machines don’t work so “roughly” with the numbers. The main thing: Almost half the city stayed home on primary day.

How come no one says, “Cast your vote! There are folks in African countries who require U.N. and AU firearm protection in order to vote.

Instead, they shrug and say, “Must be the rain.”

But I didn’t need to open my umbrella the entire day. My polling place was empty. I stood in no line. No one asked for my ID, just my name. Six people were standing around to help me with my suspicious little Diebold card. There was no “privacy” — I saw every vote cast around me on the touch screens. Plus, I heard a woman next to me motion the monitor over.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “What does this mean…this ‘unopposed’ next to the comptroller’s name?”

National Antidote to Voter Apathy: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN BE PRESIDENT

A colleague recently proposed a fantastic idea. “Why don’t we turn political campaigns into reality TV shows?” Yes, America votes!

Ending season three of Fox’s hit show So You Think You Can Dance, 16 million people voted for the queen of dance, Sabra Johnson.

Back in 2000, my first presidential election as a voter, only 55% of America voted. And of a key demographic (my age bracket, 18-24), only 8.6 million voted. That’s almost half of the audience a single episode of reality TV garnered! And it was the lowest showing of any age group, to boot. We were beat out by 1.06 million more folks 75 years and older — some of who probably wheeled and hobbled to their way to the polls.

So what if TV actually made it “sexy” to vote? Welcome to season one of Election 2008: So You Think You Can Be President…

Going Beyond Gwen Ifill…The Wrestling Hour with Vladimir Putin

The tried-and-true moderators like Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer will have to go. (The fact that I know Bob Schieffer’s work is almost an aberration of nature in my set.) The panel of So You Think You Can Be President will undoubtedly include:

  • Requisite celebrity world savior Bono
  • Two-time presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson
  • Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (for a dueling duo of quips)
  • Sean Hannity (of Fox’s Hannity & Colmes )
  • State delegation chairs from the National Hip Hop Political Convention (In case you’re afraid: Check out its MySpace page [yes, it had to be MySpace], Not Your Daddy’s Civil Rights).

We’ll hear the illustrious and expert panel’s commentary, of course. But then, America eliminates one candidate each week from each party. (It’ll be better TV if we invite the independents, Socialists, and Greens too!)

The final show narrows it down to three candidates. America votes!

Then follows the tearful two-hour special in which almost-presidents of the past come out of the woodwork and give advice to the losers. Al Gore will lead the pack as the ultimate post-election success poster boy. Finally, some leggy blond in a minidress made of paper dollars — please, not Britney Spears — will come out and read America’s final decision.

Now that would rivet citizens’ attention. Perhaps they’d even learn who the candidates are…and what they can accomplish.

Imagine the political action. Episode No. 1: “May the Best Speech Win.” Episode No. 2: “The First Debate: Town Hall Meeting, Unrigged.” Episode No. 3: An off-location special (à la The Amazing Race) in which candidates are sent to run the gauntlet of Iraqi diplomatic policy. And so forth. Interspersed with trials from “How Many Babies Can You Kiss in 10 Minutes” to the more serious “Wrestling Hour With the Bare-chested Bear of Rusky Politics.”

Since “global” politics has gone so awry and all sentiment seems against us (but for a little cuddling up from Sarkozy)…what have we to lose by degenerating to the age of Ajax — televised? Like Hector versus Achilles, so Obama versus Putin…

(The war trophies: Not armor, of course, but backdoor oil deals!)

Could be good, no? How else will we interest the Social Security-taxed youth in their own fate? But I fear that I will have to hope other people’s grandparents will be voting with “my” interest in mind in the next Maryland primary, Feb. 12, 2008. Or perhaps, maybe you.

Resisting the “iron” in the iron law of oligarchy,
Samantha Buker

September 17, 2007