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A Level Playing Field in Local Politics

Posted by dogcanteen on September 3, 2009 at 10:56 PM Comments comments (1)

The Revenge of the Chartists?

More Political Opportunity—in 4 Easy Steps

    Lower-middle-class people who are interested in politics rarely consider running for office, and one can see why.  First, if they kept asking for time off to campaign, their employers would fire them.  Second, if they kept asking for time off to attend city-council (or whatever) meetings, their employers would fire them.  Third, most political offices pay less than a living wage—and in many cases less than the minimum wage.  The net result is that electoral politics becomes a playground for upper-middle-class professionals, affluent housewives, perpetual students, the retired, and others with flexible schedules.  This system alienates the “average person” from the political process, because he knows that it is stacked against “regular people.” 
       A better system would be to create a career ladder for aspiring politicians of modest means.  This career ladder would allow them to run for local offices first and then graduate to state and federal races. 
     We already have a political career ladder of sorts, but the bottom (local) rung is cut off.  Currently, only federal politicians (Congressmen, Senators, and the President) are guaranteed a decent salary, and to a large extent the people who run for national office have already made a name for themselves at the state and local levels.   Remedying this situation might entail:

Passing a “Political Leave Act”. 
Like the Family Leave Act, except that your employer gives you unpaid leave from the time you win the primary to the time, years later, when you stop being an elected official.  If  city councilperson or school board  member is a part-time job in your community, your employer would have to make reasonable accommodations for your official duties. 

Amending state minimum wage laws to apply to elected officials. 
School districts, cities, counties, and state governments would be required to pay the minimum wage—with time-and-a-half for overtime—to their elected officials. 

Extending Unemployment Compensation to Elected Officials. 
Currently, if you work for Starbucks and you get laid off, you get unemployment comp.  If a politician loses his election, why shouldn’t he or she also get unemployment comp?  (A few states may already do this.)

Minimal Public Finance—targeted to the candidate.  If you win the primary, the city/county/state starts paying your official salary as if you have already won the general election—and they give you health insurance, too.

Anyone who considers this an abstract social justice issue with few policy implications should ask themselves any number of questions, but they might want to start with the most obvious one: Why is it that all levels of government in the United States are open pretty much 9 to 5, Monday through Friday?   Possibly because the kind of people who make our laws are also the kind of people who can’t imagine how hard it is for millions of their fellow citizens to take time off of work?
This package of reforms might also go a long way toward reducing the number of single-candidate elections at the local and state levels. 
    Paying politicians a decent wage is not a new issue.  The Chartist Movement in mid-19th Century Britain advocated salaries for elected officials, “thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.”
   Over a century later, perhaps it is time for American local governments to finally adopt Chartists’ 4th plank.
    Of course, millions of people believe that state and local elective offices should pay a substandard wage on the theory that what amounts to a starvation salary attracts an altruistic personality-type.  My position represents a counter-tradition, one that has never caught on in the United States.
    Does anyone have anything to add?  I would be especially interested in learning how local and provincial governments in the European Union pay low-level elected officials.