Getting politicians to listen to us

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Sure as Christmas falls on December 25th you can count on a legion of political candidates taking to the airwaves declaring they feel compelled to serve the public, pledging to listen to and follow the will of the people.

Call me a Doubting Thomas, but I question who they are listening to and serving. I strongly suspect they are dancing to the tune of big-dollar donors, including political action committees, “dark money” independent expenditure groups and special interests. And after winning election, their loyalties and their ears mostly hear the drumbeat of their party’s caucus.

Those suspicions were confirmed recently when Seth Effron, longtime newspaper reporter and editorialist for Capitol Broadcasting’s WRAL, did a deep dive into polling they had just conducted. He found several examples where legislators clearly aren’t listening to or following desires of the majority of voters.

Our legislature, notably the leaders and majority party members, turn a deaf ear to the need to greatly increase funding for education. They even initiated a lawsuit against a judge’s ruling demanding dramatic funding increases for K-12 education, calling the ruling a “circus.” But such a high-handed reaction runs contrary to public opinion. Further investigation reveals nearly two-thirds of the almost 2,000 surveyed said our schools are underfunded. That included 59% of Republicans and 56% of Trump voters. Across party, race and geographic lines a substantial plurality believe we are failing our constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education” for our children. And a large plurality, even 61% of conservatives, say our state underpays our teachers.

And while this example singles out legislators — and deservedly so — they aren’t the only elected officials who aren’t listening. Increasingly it appears politicians are going to do what they want to do and be damned what the voters want!

So, what can we do when politicians aren’t listening? The obvious answer is to vote them out of office, but that’s not easy, especially with gerrymandered districts and big spenders continuing to throw money into politicians’ election coffers. Defeating an incumbent, especially one who has been in office many years, can be done but it requires work.

Allow me to suggest several points in a successful strategy. First, build the case, using hard facts. This is no place for partisan politics, name calling or hyperbole. List clearly and concisely the data. Let’s take education funding issue as an example. North Carolina ranks 47th in the nation in per student funding and 33rd in teacher pay. Last year’s scores (granted they were impacted by the pandemic) revealed 53% of students in grades 3 through 8 were rated “not proficient” in grade-level reading skills. Only 45% of our students passed state exams, compared to almost 60% in 2019. And 60% is still a failing grade! And in that pre-COVID year of 2019, more than 50% failed math 1, math 3, biology and/or English exams. One in six students failed to be promoted from the pivotal 9th grade, a predictor of future high school graduation. After this report card you might reasonably think there would be an all-hands-on deck stampeded to find solutions. You would be wrong.

Next step, show individual records of votes for or against increased funding or support for public education, including proposals made to respond to the data. If there is none, say so.

I remember well in another city some years back there was widespread concern about the direction of the city council in our town. A group, naming themselves “the committee of 100,” organized, recruited top quality candidates, then raised the money to wage an effective campaign. Volunteers went door-to-door talking to voters, calling friends, putting up posters and yard signs, then staged a big get out the vote effort for the candidates they endorsed. Every one of the committee-backed candidates was swept into office, ousting some long-time, established candidates.

Conclusion: good organization, superior candidates and well-funded grass roots efforts still work.

Primary elections will be May 17, just weeks away, but there is still time to impact outcomes. Since candidates are already settled, the big task now is to get out the vote. In typical off-year elections fewer than 15% of our state’s registered voters actually vote. Call 10 people you know and tell them how important it is to cast their ballots this year, then, on election day, follow up to ask if they voted or need a ride to the polls.

Government works best when more people participate. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see 20% or more voting on May 17? If enough people do so, and especially if some surprising outcomes result, you can count on the fact that politicians will get the message that their real bosses are you and me. And maybe they will start listening.

Tom Campbell is a former assistant N.C. State Treasurer and was the creator/host of N.C. SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that aired on UNC-TV until 2020. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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