Peter Shelton

Political Sign Language

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on August 30, 2012

The newest election-season sign along Highway 550 south of Colona reads: “Citizen, not Politician.” It was put up by Jack Flowers or by others supporting his candidacy for Ouray’s District 1 commissioner seat.

This is a cynical manipulation. I say, question the premise. Think about the words and what they mean.

Juxtaposing these things – citizen, politician – is a false choice, a misdirection play (to use a football analogy).

First, politicians are citizens. Second, citizens (amateurs or outsiders in election-speak) don’t necessarily, or even usually, make better public servants than do so-called politicians.

Yes, I know, there have been and likely always will be sleazy politicians. But that’s not the issue here. In tiny Ouray County, any citizen who signs a petition, or writes a letter to the editor, is expressing his or her politics. And the commissioners, going as far back as I can remember, have invariably been public servants of the local, citizen-soldier variety. “Soldier,” because they are not paid nearly enough to compensate for the critical fire they take.

Is first-time candidate Flowers (or his sign-writer) saying that his opponent, incumbent Lynn Padgett, is a politician and somehow not a citizen? Or that she is some kind of lesser citizen because she has taken on the job of commissioner, on top of her jobs as a natural resources consultant, mother and wife?

Padgett has, in fact, committed an extraordinary amount of time and effort to the job over the last four years. She put so much energy into representing Ouray County’s interests she was voted Commissioner of the Year for 2011 by Colorado Counties, Inc., a non-partisan outfit representing all 64 counties in the state.

Through research and networking, she has got herself up to speed on a range of issues important to her constituents, from mining and water quality to broadband infrastructure, to obscure but important acronyms like PILT and SRS (Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools), which together bring many tens of thousands of dollars to the county for road maintenance and schools. Her maps were used by representatives in Congress to help defeat an Ohio-based amendment to eliminate these monies, most of which go to western states.

Most recently, Padgett invited and shepherded Senator Mark Udall on a tour of Log Hill Mesa to see first hand how poorly served some areas of the county are by Internet providers. She identified systemic injustices and regulatory hurdles and urged the senator to support changes that would improve the county’s ability to attract business, to help level the economic-development playing field in an increasingly connected world.

These are not things a dilettante commissioner could take on. These are not challenges that can be solved by right intentions, or common sense alone. When you have a plumbing problem at home, you don’t call just any well-intentioned citizen, you call a plumber.

This is our form of government. It’s a representative government. We elect people willing and (ideally) able to do work that we cannot (or wouldn’t know to) do for ourselves. We haven’t the time, the patience, the policy wonkiness – the tolerance, frankly, for the messy business that is democracy. We trust them to do the homework and make decisions in our best interests, and for the common good.

When we elect a good one, one who is capable and hard working, and principled, we can consider ourselves lucky. And the system itself has a chance to work as intended, as envisioned by the Framers, who staked their revolution on representative government.

In this country we have citizen soldiers, citizen cops, citizen council and board members – citizen politicians. Neither the concept nor the word deserves knee-jerk condemnation.

Yet that’s what Jack Flowers’ sign signifies. That’s what some in this age of win-at-any-cost electioneering would have you think. Subliminally. At the level of your fears. At the level, not of your citizenship, but of your tribal identification.

It’s code. Citizen means Flowers. Politician means Padgett. Good. Bad. Republican. Democrat. Us. Them. You can’t get much more tribal than that.

It chaps my hide when otherwise innocent words are used, quite intentionally, to divide the electorate. This form of speech doesn’t illuminate. It darkens the day as I drive past. It doesn’t further the conversation; it attempts to end it. With a falsehood.

One Response

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  1. isiscambassassassassian said, on August 31, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Maybe they are trying to say that the candidate is not so deeply entrenched in the political system that they can remember what it is like to be an ordinary citizen. Or perhaps they are trying to imply their rival was in fact born in Indonesia/Kenya/Soviet Russia/Jupiter.

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