Whether you’re closing out your first term of office or your tenth, there’s nothing joyful about seeking re-election with opposition. It bears significant resemblance to that classic scene from “Jaws” with the huge, man-eating shark circling around the tiny fishing trawler and the nervous crewman telling the captain, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I know, it’s never that bad, and that is why we do file for another term.
However, we have all experienced that small feeling of being isolated in a sea of constituency that never really tells you what you need to know: Am I doing the job? We come into office full of desire to make a difference and to accomplish things that our predecessors only dreamed about. So we set lofty goals and try to produce results in that first term that could have tested the limits of many a mere mortal. We say to ourselves, “Wow, I did it!” and wait for congrats from a thankful citizenry, only to find out that some upstart-wannabe wants to take our place and is running against us. Sometimes it ends right there, with only one citizen who does not see all the good things we have done for our county. Other times it can spread faster than “swine flu” and we end with multiple opponents all saying that they can do this job better than us. It is easy to be forlorn over such slights and insults to our ability and management skill, but we must always remember, “It’s nothing personal; it’s just politics.” You will probably have to take that one outside and smoke on it for a while until you calm down.
The good news is that there are distinct advantages available to the incumbents that the wannabe’s do not have. One, you are “king of the hill,” and it’s a lot easier to push down than to try pushing up. The “power of office” should never be taken lightly; projects or issues that are contentious in your county, if resolved in time by your efforts, will afford you much good press. This power of office can also be a double-edged sword that can carve you up into little political figurines if you mishandle its use. You can always pursue one of those “everyone wins” projects like starting up a recycling program in your community with help of a grant from our council of governments. A great number of citizens are into recycling, and if you start a program without relying on their local tax dollars, so much the better.
Being an incumbent earns you much more free press than the opposition, and if you use it wisely, you will not only get your message out, but earn the respect of the journalistic community for the way you used them to win re-election, which happens to be the same way the press uses politicians to sell more newspapers and improve their ratings.
There are some elections where the incumbent may feel vulnerable as a result of a few bad decisions that still come home to roost, or even a mini-scandal that can shroud an elected official’s otherwise impeccable record. Mistakes are all a part of human nature, and I believe that the average voter has great capacity to forgive and move on, provided that you have the courage to admit when you were wrong and not resort to the “blame game.” If you mess up, admit it and lay your cards on the table for all to see. In short, don’t explain it away; your enemies will never believe it, and your friends don’t need to hear it.
Do not get caught up with this insane logic by telling yourself, “People know where I stand on the issues, so if they don’t like the job I’ve done, they can have it.” Voters still like to be asked for their vote, and any officeholder who cannot recognize its importance will get to meet the “lame duck” soon enough. When I was first elected commissioner back in 1990, I had the chance to meet many incumbents who had been in office for decades, and almost always without opposition. I had illusions about being in office for life. In the next four years, a great number of “lifers” ran into opposition and lost. But there was one commissioner who defied change. His name was Eddie, and he had been in office longer than I had been alive. I remember being on a pay phone in the lobby of an A&M hotel during a commissioners conference, calling my party chairman at 4:55 p.m. on the last day to file for office, only to be told that I picked up two opponents in the last hour. I shared my displeasure with Eddie. A light went off in Eddie’s head, and he grabbed the phone and called his party chairman. He apparently had forgotten to file for re-election himself. He tells his party chair to fix up the papers, and he would swing by later in the week to sign up. This is all taking place at exactly 5 p.m. on the last day to file. My jaw hit the floor as I listened to the conservation. Eddie had been unopposed for so many years that he actually forgot to file. Go figure. I have had opposition in four of the last six elections, so I have a hard time understanding how an elected official could forget to file.
If you are in a race, even a political one, you run to win. There is no such thing as a moral victory in this business; you either go the distance or you go home. Do not let re-election blues get you down. Do all you can while you can, and have faith in your voters to make the right choice.
By Wharton County Commissioner D.C. “Chris” King