“So why don’t you run for city council?”

Lake Forest, California City Council (photos from the Lake Forest City Website)

A few years ago, I wrote about the trajectories taken by the community where I grew up, Reseda, and the city where I live, Lake Forest. Today, Lake Forest’s trajectory is heading right towards the ground. Our city is embroiled in a bitter fight by one block of city council members who want to recall the other block. Both sides have enough embarrassing sordidness to go around. There is the campaign sign stealing. And the altercation in a supermarket parking lot. And the nasty campaign flyers that fill our mailboxes on a regular basis.

You may ask, “If you’re so unhappy with your city council, why don’t you run? You’re always talking about the importance of getting involved. You were a Little League president. You attended the Lake Forest Leadership Academy. You’re an award-winning public speaker. You have friends in Reseda who can show you how to build a community. Why don’t you run for city council?”

My answer will explain what’s wrong with politics today.

I won’t run for Lake Forest city council for several reasons.

First, I’m a registered Democrat. I have as much of a chance getting elected to public office in South Orange County as I do to become the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. And heaven knows they need one.

Second, I don’t want to drag my family into the inevitable mudslinging. Let’s just say there are things going on that won’t win over the value voters.

Finally, running for political office is a stupid business proposition. Recall proponents accuse three city council members of receiving $200,000 in campaign contributions from people and businesses doing business with the city. That’s bad. And it raises a bigger question: Why in the hell would anyone need that much money to run for a city council seat in a small city like Lake Forest? The job pays a $600 per month stipend. At the end of a four-year term, you had received $28,800 for a job you spent about three times that amount to get. And you have to pay that much again to get re-elected. No wonder why politicians can’t balance a budget!

So, Lake Forest city council isn’t for me. The problem is that it isn’t for most other people who might have something positive to contribute to the city.

It isn’t for people who don’t fit in some ideological cubbyhole. Officially, Lake Forest city council is non-partisan. But that hasn’t stopped candidates from touting how much more loyal they are to a certain political party than their opponents. Just because someone checked a certain box for party affiliation, it doesn’t mean they are the best qualified for the job. You can have someone who gets involved in the community, believes in sound financial management, and has great ideas for addressing the city’s problems — but he’s disqualified because he voted for President Obama in the last election?

It isn’t for people who don’t want theirs or their family’s personal business turned into political issues. Some personal issues are fair game. If someone lied about their credentials, has conflicts of interest, or got involved in shady business or political dealings in the past, those are things we should know about. They speak to the candidate’s character and their ability to do the job. But does it matter that the candidate has a gay nephew? Or a sister who got pregnant at 16? Even at a local level, candidates are subjected to the unblinking and undiscerning eye of social media and Internet gossip. Many would rather stay anonymous, or as anonymous as one can be in the twenty first century.

It isn’t for people who aren’t independently wealthy or deeply in the pockets of political dealmakers. The out-of-control campaign spending that results in multi-billion-dollar US presidential campaigns has trickled down to the local level. Unless you have the money to spend on slick four-color flyers and street corner signs, professional website developers, social media experts, professional canvassers, and publicists, you have no chance to compete against those who do.

When you filter people out, what you have left are the ideologues who parrot party positions whether or not they are relevant to the job, the shameless who have learned how to hide or explain away personal and family problems, and those who are deeply in political debt to wealthy contributors or are so rich they have no connection with the rest of the community. This doesn’t happen all the time. Principled grassroots candidates can break through and pose a challenge to established politicians. These candidates don’t always succeed, and the ones who do might get seduced, corrupted, and absorbed into the system they once fought.

A recall election may give us a brief “throw the bums out” satisfaction, but it won’t solve the serious problems in our political system. We need to get big money out of our elections and restrict the influence of large campaign contributors. We need to step away from scorched-earth personal mudslinging and get back to focusing on the issues. Finally, we need to elect candidates based on their qualifications and experience, not whether they pass some ideological litmus test.

Until these things happen, I’m not running for political office.