The Strong Roots of Community
A recent editorial by Mark Funkhouser, publisher of Governing magazine and a former Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, discussed the notion of “political will” and asserted that lamenting about the lack of political will to solve a problem was a failure to engage and “build a narrative that embraces the values of the majority of folks who are not unalterably committed to either side.”
It seems obvious that polarization and sniping at the opposition drives more polarization and makes it even harder to bring people together. Mr. Funkhouser believes we have far more in common than we often tend to realize and that real leadership is shown by building on those stories even absent compromise or moderation.
His article reminded me of some long ago lessons from undergraduate and graduate school that seem to be apropos of current affairs. In a class on foreign affairs, an undergraduate professor described terrorism as a tactic of the weak intended to exploit differences and divisions in an opponent and undermine their ability. Perhaps some of the vitriol spewed anonymously on social media is having the same effect on civic discourse.
A second academic memory is from an early graduate course in public administration. We were assigned to read a book called The Ticket Splitter by Walter De Vries. The author’s point was that a significant percentage of American voters voted for the candidate, rather than the party, indicating that the majority tended to cluster near the center of the political spectrum. Successful candidates, De Vries argued, are able to find sufficient common ground to appeal to enough voters to be successful. His assertions, made over 40 years ago, may seem a bit shaky in today’s partisan, political world, but when it comes to facing local issues, there is certainly an element of these concepts in Mr. Funkhouser’s ideas.
These threads were woven together for me when I read about the City of Burien in the most recent issue of the Association of Washington Cities publication, Cityvision. After a particularly divisive and overtly racist civic debate over a city policy prohibiting city employees from asking about immigration or religious affiliation in rendering municipal services, two new Latino councilmembers were elected. One of them, Jimmy Matta, was chosen by the City Council to be Burien’s Mayor in January.
To quote Mayor Matta:
The one thing I can tell you I won’t have a hiccup on is the value of making sure that everybody is heard. It doesn’t matter how you stand on issues. What matters is that you are heard.
These bits and pieces reinforce my belief in the power of building on what the majority of our communities have in common to tackle the issues local governments will face, both now and in the future.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.