Memo to Nick Kristof: Forget the governor. Candidacy for the municipal council.


Last week, the editor of The New Republic, Win McCormack, wrote an article supporting a potential Oregon gubernatorial candidacy by the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. The first four paragraphs of the article are devoted to demonstrating that, in McCormack’s words, “Nick never really left his hometown of Yamhill”, even though he left this small town in Oregon after the high school in the late 1970s and only returned in 2019.

McCormack lives with his partner, Carol Butler, a Democratic political strategist who worked for current Oregon Governor Kate Brown, and now consults with Kristof. So McCormack’s column is, arguably, the start of a campaign rollout, designed to neutralize the most obvious criticism of an offer from Kristof: he is an inexperienced porter in government.

But this review has a lot of truth. Yes, Kristof has for a long time connections in Oregon, a family farm he visited regularly as an adult and now helps manage, as well as a neighboring property he bought almost 30 years ago. But having connections is not the same as residing full time, being regularly involved in the local community, and getting involved in state issues on a regular basis. He is undoubtedly an Oregonian, but it is difficult to argue that he is the best Oregonian to lead the state government.

After Donald Trump’s shocking presidential victory in 2016, one can still sketch a possible scenario in which a famous underdog wins an election by campaigning against the status quo and promising new ideas. But the wreckage of Andrew Yang’s train during a run for mayor of New York is more revealing of how these campaigns typically play out.

Admittedly, Kristof shouldn’t decide to run based on his chances of winning. Just because you’re a long shot doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. However, Kristof would have to decide if he’s the best prepared person for the job or, to put it a little differently, if he’s the best prepared. it might be For the job.

Yes, Kristof’s professional accomplishments are breathtaking. For 37 years he has worked for The New York Times as a journalist, editor and columnist. He has traveled to over 150 countries, often shining the spotlight and seeking solutions to poverty, genocide, military conflicts, gender discrimination, criminal injustice and child mortality. Two Pulitzer Prizes. Five bestselling books (all co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn). A reputation of “moral conscience of our generation of journalists”. (Although maybe Kristof won’t put this quote from Jeffrey Toobin on any campaign materials.)

Kristof has put a lot of thought into how to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. But thinking and reporting on social issues is not the same as holding public office, balancing voter demands, and manipulating the levers of government.

There is a way for Kristof to gain this kind of experience. This is called local government.

Kristof could run for an elective post on his city council. His farm would be “between Yamhill and Carlton”. Both cities have a “strong council” form of government, in which the mayor has no veto power. He might be able to wield a good influence from a board seat or consider running for mayor. Granted, Yamhill and Carlton are tiny towns with less than 2,500 residents, while Yamhill County has about 100,000 residents. So a more tempting position might be a seat on the Yamhill County Commissioners Council, which oversees the county administrator.

If it turned out to be difficult to win an elected post, he could likely land an appointed post in one of the many county committees, such as the Planning Commission, the Housing Authority Council or the Budget Committee. , which would have a direct bearing on questions of poverty and dignity. which have long been in his interest.

Whether in an elected or appointed position, serving the public at the city or county level would give Kristof invaluable practical experience on how the levers of government actually work, as well as how state and federal policies can help. – or frustrate – local communities. He would be able to do good and also to learn when good intention proves insufficient.

James Fallows, a former Washington Monthly long-time editor and contributor. After several years of flying his own plane 100,000 miles across America, city by city, Fallows and his wife, Deborah, recounted “the extent of local renewal and experimentation, directed to many of the same people. challenges that now seem virtually hopeless from a national perspective. Together they produced a series of dispatches for Atlantic, a book titled Our towns, an HBO documentary of the same name, and a non-profit organization that helps “the now disconnected innovators and reformers realize they’re part of something bigger.”

During a telephone conversation, Fallows assured me that Kristof “will be excellent in whatever he does”. But he recognized that, for anyone considering public service, local government has a lot to offer. “You see the objects of your politics every day,” observed Fallows, which has “a lifting, maturing and improving effect on the way people [feel] about their cities and the way the government works[s]. Another bonus is that ‘there is probably a lower proportion of your time that you need to spend on fundraising in most local offices’.

One particularly compelling insight Fallows took from his interviews with mayors and councilors across the country is that “it’s often more possible to make very long-term changes at the local level and think they’re going to stay. , than in many other offices, because there is no back and forth in politics. You can have a park built and think it will be there another 100 years. You can turn a trash-laden waterfall into a public place and think it’s going to be there in the long run. “

To make a difference at any level of government, Kristof would have to develop a whole new set of skills, because these jobs are more difficult than they seem. In May, Amanda Ripley wrote a fascinating article for Politics, telling the story of Gary Friedman of Muir Beach, California. Friedman had helped “invent the field of conflict mediation” and personally “helped over 2,000 people overcome all kinds of inconvenience.” So his neighbors thought he would be perfect for the Muir Beach Community Service District Board of Directors. He was not only elected, but also became chairman of the board.

The council, which manages roads and water, had become a very controversial body. Friedman and his supporters assumed that his deep experience in conflict resolution would defuse tensions. But, as Ripley explained, “one of the country’s leading conflict management gurus fell into the same traps he taught thousands of people to avoid.” Friedman himself admitted that in the face of an “old guard” resistant to change, “I became defensive. I have become aggressive. He says he went through a period of “personal inconvenience” and was humiliated in the process: “I have never been delighted with the way politicians behave, but I now have a lot more appreciation for. how easy it is to get caught. “

Yet after the humiliation of being ousted from the board chair, he stayed on the board and finally figured out how to transcend the political divisions that had made local governance dysfunctional. “In the end,” Ripley wrote, “Friedman helped heal politics in his town. The road was fixed. The water tariff went up. The tone of the meetings improved.

Learning from the setbacks may be easier at the local level, where the spotlight is much cooler than it would be in the Governor’s mansion. But if Kristof won a municipal post, he might consider keeping his New York Times column, if the newspaper allows, and use it to popularize participation in local government, as the local government could use some popularization. And there’s Substack, of course, if the newspaper couldn’t accept both.

Many local offices are pleading with candidates to fill them. A 2017 study by the Center for Local Elections in American Politics, examining 16 years of mayoral contests in six states, found that “about half of all municipal elections have only one candidate,” and the number is higher in small towns, “where 79 percent of contests are unchallenged. In addition, “since 2000, unopposed elections have multiplied. By 2016, on average, 60 percent of mayoral competitions. . . presented only one candidate.

Presumably, the numbers on the local legislative races are no better and are not set to improve. Serving in the municipal office has always been a notoriously thankless task. Now, school board and city council public comment sessions are increasingly becoming battlegrounds of culture wars. In all likelihood, fewer thoughtful citizens will voluntarily choose to be yelled at in their free time.

Kristof is particularly well placed to change these perceptions. He could regularly share with readers around the world the challenges and rewards of serving local government. And as we vicariously travel with him on his political journey, we might be inspired along the way to follow his example.

Finally, if Kristof showed up for the local office, he might find that he doesn’t want to show up for something else. Fallows shared with me an anecdote about former Duluth, Minnesota, mayor Don Ness, who was encouraged to run for Congress. When Fallows asked him what his reaction was to the courtesy, Ness replied, “Higher duties? Are you kidding? This is where I can make the difference.

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