Monday, January 3, 2011

Will Minority Communities Have a Fate or a Future After May Elections?

Dallas citizens face another election season in 2011. This May, the virtually every city council seat, with the exception of the Mayor, will be up for reelection.

An article in the Dallas Morning News raises the question about the lack of minority candidates for the office of Mayor (election for the City Council's top spot is in May of next year). The conclusion in the article, written by DMN reporter/columnist Gromer Jeffers appears to be the lack of a credible candidate with city-wide appeal and support by business leadership in our city. That may be true. It also may be, as is pointed out in the article, that there aren't enough qualified candidates interested in a job that pays only $60,000 a year (council members are paid only $37,500 a year). Jeffers also points out the lack of a 'farm team' for developing mayoral office. Again, it may be true. Although arguably the city's boards and commissions traditionally serve as proving grounds for those interested in elective office. But more to the point, grassroots 'training camps' like the old Progressive Voters League, which introduced minority (more specifically African-American) community leaders, no longer exist. And organizations such as these usually prepared people as candidates for city council or a school board seat.

I think that one of the most important questions regarding the upcoming elections is whether or not voters, particularly in minority districts are having a chance to elect the most qualified candidates? Not the most 'experienced', but the best qualified. And if that's not so, why aren't the most qualified running? The answer could be the low pay. The answer could be that many who can afford to run, can't afford to serve. The answer could also be the intense scrutiny of all political candidates and the unwillingness of those who are more qualified to undergo that type of scrutiny.

The facts are, whatever the reason(s), there are plenty of good community and business leaders who are doing excellent work outside of the political arena. The more substantive challenge is not just in identifying more qualified candidates for office, but in developing a more engaged citizenry who see the redevelopment of their neighborhoods, the improvement of their schools and the economic viability of their community so vital to their futures and those of their families and neighbors, that they hold candidates radically accountable.

This means not only refusing to reflexively reelect candidates who represent someone else's interests at the expense of that of their community. It means no longer viewing voting as an individual exercise of a franchise, but as a expression of community political will. It means challenging those who ask for votes to listen to what the community wants and not just being content to be told what a candidate will do for the community. It also means, no longer accepting the whines of incumbents about 'how hard the office is' or the 'sacrifices' the politician is making as an excuse for failing to be responsive and for the lack of progress in the community. Rarely are candidates drafted to run for office - they tend to ask to be elected.

The hard work of serving on the city council (or any other public office) can only be adequately matched by a hard working constituency. That constituency needs a core leadership who understands the issues, realizes it can't afford to get tired and refuses to be deterred by the bigness of the challenges before them. They are cannot just be 'noisemakers' or 'gate keepers', they can be young and old, they should span income ranges, they can be homeowners or renters, or church leaders and business leaders. But most importantly they must be citizens who are unafraid to stand up and be counted.

Ultimately, that's where new, trusted, qualified leadership comes from. It's the difference between electing politicians to do for you vs. with you. It is what transforms a communities political fate into a political future.

Until that happens, we get what we've always gotten.

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