You there, admiring yourself in the mirror. You’d be a great congressional representative or even a U.S. senator, right?
“You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet there’s that upturned chin and the grin of impetuous youth.
Oh, I believe in you!”
But first you have to get elected, and that means months of campaigning: personal appearances, boringly repetitive speeches, way too much travel, early risings, late bedtimes, “debates” and being nice to people you don’t like.
“I hear the sound of good solid judgment whenever you talk,
Yet there’s the bold, brave spring of the tiger that quickens your walk…”
But you have to raise tons of money from people who want a piece of you, and then you have to turn around and spend it on negative ads written by professional mudslingers attacking The Other Guy, who isn’t a bad fellow, really, and then swallow your conscience and confess you “approved this message.”
You also have to hope your chances are good enough to attract wealthy outside groups with which you have no connection (wink, wink) and who are also eager to spend hundreds of thousands on smearing your opponent.
That’s the trouble with politics here, there and everywhere. To become a judicious, thoughtful, persuasive and respected lawmaker, you first have to be an ambitious, self-aggrandizing, venal, hypocritical and phony campaigner.
In other words, you have to behave like Colorado’s candidates for the U.S. Senate and the 6th Congressional District, whose names and TV spots have been washing over you every time you turn on the TV.
But here’s how to succeed in politics without really trying: Get chosen for Congress or the Senate by random selection.
Like being tapped for jury duty, but with decent salaries.
This isn’t my idea. I first heard it 24 years ago from a couple of political activists, a Republican and a Democrat. It was just weeks before Colorado voters approved term limits. They predicted, correctly, that term limits weren’t going to solve the problem and came up with a more radical idea.
They weren’t crackpots. Fred Steffens, the Republican, had been executive director of the state GOP and managed campaigns for Attorney General Duane Woodard, U.S. Rep. Ken Kramer and Senate candidate Mary Estill Buchanan.
Judy Henning, the Democrat, had been mayor of Englewood and later served as vice chair of the state Democratic Party.
They shared their idea with me over beers at the Wazee Supper Club and I wrote a column about it for the Rocky Mountain News the next day.
Almost a quarter-century later the idea is just as intriguing, with nary a beer in or even near me.
Steffens died of a heart attack five years later at the all-too-young age of 54 but Henning is still very much with us — and just as enthusiastic about random selection as before.
“The more I see of our candidates the more firmly I am in that camp,” she said the other day.
Term limits won’t end expensive campaigns subsidized by special interest groups, Steffens predicted back in 1990. “But random selection would rid Congress of campaign abuse, brain death and white male domination,” he said. The pool of 435 representatives and 100 senators is large enough to represent “a nearly perfect representation of ideas, personalities and socio-economic groups.”
But isn’t it risky to pick your representatives like you pick a jury?
“If 12 people can vote on whether a defendant lives or dies, why can’t we let them vote on whether there’s going to be a new highway between West Virginia and Kentucky?” replied Steffens.
If he were alive today, he might have mentioned their voting on a new oil pipeline between Alberta and Nebraska instead of a new highway.
Federal officeholders could be selected from among those holding driver’s licenses, said Henning, since the ability to negotiate our roads means you’re probably smart enough to negotiate Washington. Of course you would also have to meet constitutional age minimums.
If you don’t want to serve, you wouldn’t have to. The secretary of state or county clerk could gather the list of eligibles from postcards sent out to every voter. Just check the “Willing to serve in Congress” box.
The system would eliminate special interest money entirely. There’s be no sense in plying you with it once elected, either, because you wouldn’t be allowed to serve a second term. You don’t have to make promises you can’t keep. You don’t have to attack anyone. You don’t have to beg for money.
Leadership would rise to the top right away and there would be no seniority to determine committee chairmanships. Legislators would no longer have to suppress their consciences and go along to get along.
Election night would be as exciting as ever. The original plan was to shoot numbered ping-pong balls out of a revolving bin into a tube on live TV, like the way lotto winners were chosen. If that’s your driver’s license number you’re a public official! But this being 2014 you may want to put the thousands of names onto the state’s iTunes voter playlist, click the shuffle button and see who pops up.
Think of all the perfectly competent people you know who would make decent, if not excellent, representatives but would never stoop to the indignities and inanities of the modern campaign, which can only be loved by pollsters, political junkies and the TV stations that reap the revenue.
If nutjobs are selected once in a while, would they be any weirder than those who have clung to office in Washington for decades on end?
Much as we’d like to, we can’t go back to the 19th Century, when it was considered undignified to actively seek public office and you waged your campaign from your front porch. Dignity counts for nothing now and candidates are expected to be power-trippers. Their election proves anew Friedrich Hayek’s theory of “why the worst get on top.”
Random selection might be a step in the right direction.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.