Moving to Los Angeles in 2015, after two decades of gratifying development work with the U.N. around the world, I was eager to learn about American politics and contribute to the betterment of society.
In the runup for the Nov. 8 election, I got a job canvassing for Assemblywoman Suzette Martinez Valladares in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys. After watching election campaigns of David Ryu, Caitlin Jenner, Kevin Kiley and other prominent Californians, from a distance, I finally became a foot soldier for a local politician!
I came into the canvassing exercise with no preconceived ideas. Volunteering on the suicide prevention hotline taught me that challenges in relationships, health and financial problems can provoke extreme, visceral reactions. Politics was not on this list. Democrat, conservative or independent, we’re all fellow Americans, I thought. Everybody wants lower gas prices and safer environment. Suzette Valladares fights to get these things for the area, where she grew up. So, what’s there to disagree about? The thing is, Suzette is a Republican. As a state and district representative, she works with all parties to bring about policies that benefit her constituency. She is not concerned with D.C. politics, yet it affects the way she is perceived, making it hard for her to win on the strength of her program and achievements alone.
Completing my first walk book left me an empty shell of a woman. It is hard to be dismissed with a wave of a hand like you are an annoying fly. “Do not trespass!” and “Armed Response” signs guarding the house of a “hard Democrat” are disorienting. Someone told me they already filled in their ballot but didn’t remember names of the people they voted for. Women of every political creed were uniformly nicer than men: They answered the door, some even took a survey, and didn’t invoke Donald Trump! Those who were disposed to talk expressed disbelief that any given problem could be solved by one politician.
Take the homelessness problem, for example. If we do not address economic roots of it, we will be compelled to build more and more housing for this ever-expanding street population. Having distributed free meals on Skid Row, Venice Beach and Hollywood, I know a significant part of the homeless population suffers from addiction and mental health problems. I also remember from my youth in Kazakhstan a state tuberculosis hospital for homeless people: Mass brawls and destruction of property by patients in the midst of a withdrawal or mental crisis were a regular occurrence. Instead of coming up with a comprehensive multi-vector plan, candidates for the California governor’s office, and its current incumbent, are busy competing in the “Who Throws More $ @Houses4Homeless!” game. Once these extravagant money pledges translate into arcane, tinted-window policies, possibilities for diversion of funds become endless. At least, in her jurisdiction, Suzette implements good practices to alleviate the impact of the crisis. In the development world, we call that pilot projects; if successful, they can be scaled up.
In my U.N. work, I had my share of meetings with local politicians. Be it the farthest corner of Mongolia, Nicaragua, or Comoros, I would be met by a representative of a majority party, aka a manager of a bank branch, an engineer, or educator. We would discuss how to install a community radio station to provide local news, ads, cultural entertainment and emergency telecommunications. My next visit, the radio station would be up and running. The local representative, though, might have changed. End of term, performance issues, or personal reasons, the rotation of elective officials was constant.
An old vintage democracy still survives in provincial France. Local officials, members of parliament and senators engage with voters at weekend fairs and through media. With the political landscape in constant mutation, party affiliations take a back seat to personal capacity to bring improvements to the area.
In California, we persist in electing people according to our bias, but does it make us any happier? Perhaps it is time to end blind voting along party lines. What if instead of voting for a Democrat, Republican or independent, we vote for a Just Smart, Capable Politician? Yes, that would mean we actually have to do research on our own, tune into realities of our area, and mute the buzz coming from D.C., Sacramento or Mar-a-Lago. But think of the benefits! We could confidently demand accountability and replace those who wasted our credit of trust with more capable public administrators, thus regaining control of the democratic process.