Every political season has its share of lessons. You have to wonder, however, if anyone really pays attention.
In election after election, candidates who don’t have a dog’s chance of winning continue to pay their qualifying fees and mount what everyone else knows will be a losing effort.
In addition, some candidates seem to think they’re made of Teflon — that nothing bad from their past will stick to them today. They often seem surprised that their skeletons are suddenly put on public display. Who, me?? That’s not fair!
A local example of such a campaign took place this spring in nearby Banks County. It’s instructive for those who may someday plan to run for public office.
A candidate qualified in Banks County to run for a seat on the board of commissioners against the incumbent chairman. But rumblings during the campaign suggested that there was more to the challenger’s story than most people knew.
Our sister newspaper, The Banks County News, received a tip that we should ask for the challenger’s personnel file from the county and for records from the sheriff’s office about a previous investigation that involved the candidate.
So we did.
Turns out, the challenger had been an employee of the Banks County Fire Department for many years. In 2008, he was terminated —fired or resigned, it’s not very clear exactly what happened — after allegations surfaced that he had looked at porn sites from a fire department computer. The candidate had also been under suspicion for similar activity in 2002, according to the BCSO investigative file. The investigation was closed after the employee’s termination and no criminal charges were filed.
Some of the records also indicated that the challenger wasn’t supposed to again work for Banks County, but he was rehired in 2011 and worked for the fire department until he resigned to run for the BOC seat this year. But even in that period of employment, the candidate had several disciplinary notes in his personnel file from the fire chief saying that he didn’t follow the chain of command and had been taking complaints about the department to a member of the BOC. (Like many local fire departments, the BCFD has long been a Peyton Place of intrigue.)
That candidate’s work history with the county was fair game for reporting during a campaign. While there were no criminal accusations, all the drama this candidate had been involved in as a county employee called into question his judgment and character.
But then the challenger made the matter worse by becoming defensive and slinging allegations against other people, primarily his previous bosses and his political opponent.
He denied looking at porn sites and said it must have been trustee inmates who did it.
He said he was fired because he knew dirt about the fire chief who oversaw the department in 2008.
He said he had been “cleared” from the 2008 allegations by members of the BOC in 2011, but that someone had “stolen” that memo from his county personnel file.
He said the recent disciplinary actions in his file were not legal and suggested they had been planted to hurt his campaign.
And the candidate’s wife took to Facebook to slam her husband’s critics saying it was all just politically motivated. (Why do spouses feel they have to speak for the candidate? Why can’t candidates speak for themselves without “Honey-do” rushing to their defense?)
All of that is the typical response by candidates when they come under fire in a campaign: Deny, deny and blame others.
But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. When a candidate gets defensive and starts to blame others for his own problems, his chance of winning goes down the tubes.
It didn’t matter if this candidate looked at porn or if inmates were to blame.
It didn’t matter if he resigned or was fired.
It didn’t matter what his former fire chief may have done wrong.
It didn’t matter if the BOC had “cleared” him or not.
It didn’t matter if a document was missing from his personnel file or if other documents were planted in the file.
All that mattered in this campaign was that voters saw a guy who was embroiled by controversy and who spent more time blaming others than taking responsibility for his own actions. Voters must have figured there was some kind of fire behind the allegations because the challenger only got 36 percent of the vote.
So what’s the message in this story?
Most of the time, it’s not the allegations that will do a candidate in — it’s the candidate’s own response to the accusations that matters most to voters.
If a candidate gets defensive under pressure and starts pointing fingers at others for his problems, voters will react negatively. Voters don’t like candidates who react like an adolescent when facing criticism.
What voters want — and respect — are candidates who respond to these kinds of allegations with a sense of dignity and maturity.
This candidate would have been much better served to have simply said something like: “I’ve made mistakes in the past, I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’ve moved on. I hope voters will look beyond the past and judge me on who I am today.”
This is Psychology 101. Voters are human and have made their own share of mistakes in life. They want to find a way to forgive a candidate for whatever transgressions he may have made in the past.
Sometimes the allegations are so serious that isn’t possible. But most of the time, these kinds of things are relatively isolated incidents and minor in scope. All a candidate has to do is ask for forgiveness for his failings and voters will generally show a great deal of mercy.
So the political lesson #1 for those wanting to run for public office is this: Don’t be a crybaby, get defensive or blame others when your skeletons fall out of the closet.
Man-up, accept responsibility and move on. If you do that, voters are likely to move on, too.
It’s hard to tell what message comes from the political tealeaves in the Barrow County Board of Education elections.
Although the BOE gets a lot of public criticism, voters seldom oust any BOE incumbent. In this election cycle, one candidate had no opposition, one incumbent won re-election and two other incumbents are in the runoff.
On the one hand, one might argue that two incumbents didn’t get a majority vote in the primary and therefore that’s a sign of public disapproval.
But I’m not so sure. For one thing, there’re so many BOE seats (nine) that each district is very small and subject to the whims of voter turnout. Sometimes, it’s whoever has the largest family that will carry a race in a small district.
Despite my cynical political nature, I think that most of the time, voters get things right in local elections.
That’s not always true, of course, but generally speaking, the best-qualified candidate wins local races. And absent a big scandal, incumbents tend to stay in office for as long as they want.
For the Barrow BOE, the election seems to suggest that while many people are dissatisfied with the school system, a majority don’t see electing new board members as a solution.
Perhaps the July runoffs for those two remaining BOE seats will help bring this into clearer focus.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at mike @mainstreetnews.com.