Men went there ‘to make a figure,’ and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of birthday cake that others may eat it.
Lewis Namier’s assessment of 18th century politicians is consistent with my own views about today’s politicians. Lest you think this view overly cynical, Namier adds something I also agree with at the end of this paragraph I quote above: “Which is perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible.” Elected politicians say they want to make the world a better place, but each one of them will tell you that doing that won’t be possible unless they get re-elected. And it’s how the system has worked for hundreds of years.
Whether we like it or not, those of us who wish to set our cities in the region on a course toward transit friendly and sustainable density depend on politicians to do the right thing; if we connect their political ambitions—their birthday cake if you will—to achieving our agenda in the region, we’ll have a better chance of getting what we want. I’ve talked about an idea for the big message—Density is People—and the list of things we need to get done. Both will require political muscle.
Getting into office and staying there takes money, and without a strategy to put lots of money into the political system we’re taking our chances on what that system produces. Whatever the accolades, pats on the back, and cool plaques we give politicians for doing the right thing, nothing beats cash in their campaign accounts. And today, there is no significant entity raising and spending political money to push for density.
Yes, there are examples of individual developers who pass out political cash, but as one friend who travels in those circles told me, the smartest thing to do is hand out money to everyone. Even if they finish third, there’s a good chance most political aspirants will come back again. But handing out a little bit of cash to everyone pretty much neutralizes an effect those contributions might have. It’s difficult to hold candidates and elected officials accountable when they all get money no matter what they do.
How do we hold elected officials accountable for the decisions they make on land use? One way might be to organize a lot of grass roots support and volunteers. But something tells me that “density” isn’t going to be an organizing principle. Important aspects of density like active nightlife have motivated political action before, but that is a bit narrower than making big changes to support more density around light rail.
What developers and others who support smart, sustainable growth in cities need to do is create a political fund managed solely to spend political money on holding elected officials—especially members of city councils—accountable for their land use and transit decisions. The fund could function like a blind trust giving some distance between contributors with specific projects and the actions of the political fund. Contributors could still write their checks to incumbents while still putting money into an effective effort to defeat those candidates.
It sounds odd, I know. But I have found again and again that density advocates (especially in Seattle) are afraid to put their energy into defeating a candidate because of their questionable decisions on land use. The worry is that a contribution to a challenger won’t lead to the councilmembers defeat, and the incumbent will remember the slight later on when their vote is needed on an important project.
Overcoming this fear factor is crucial to helping pro-density candidates win and anti-density candidates lose. Something powerful has to be established to counter the loud and often angry voices opposed to change in neighborhoods.
Facts, figures, and well-reasoned arguments are important; but they’re even better when backed with a smart, nimble, well financed, and strategic political machine that ensures our side isn’t just right, but that our side wins.