(Note: This essay originally ran in AltDaily)
Sheesh... And I thought this was gonna be fun.
A couple of months ago, my friend, Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward, asked if I would help out with her re-election campaign, and I said “sure.”
I hadn't worked on a political campaign in 16 years. I had decided back then that the atmosphere had become too corrosive, and I didn't want my life to be further polluted with such toxicity. Even I didn't know just how bad it eventually would get.
Since then, I've worked in local TV news, wrote a column for a local newspaper and became a fairly skilled web developer. I've never had any desire to jump back into the snake pit that politics in modern America has turned into – even when offered buckets of money.
But I adore Molly Ward. She’s like my little sister. Plus, I have never met anyone in elective office with more integrity and genuine desire to engage in public service. I believe she's the best elected official in the entire region, and the citizens of Hampton are lucky to have her as their mayor.
So I thought to myself: “This is great.” She could run on her achievements, her intellect and her vision for the future of Hampton, and the race would be a slam dunk.
How could I possibly have been so naïve?
All we have to do is look at every single recent or current political race to know that personal and vindictive attacks have become the norm, and deceit and obfuscation on issues standard procedure. Why should Hampton be immune?
There were two other things about the Hampton election that stood out to me. One was the void in civic leadership that occurs when a newspaper in a community as large as the Peninsula abdicates its role as a watchdog over political lies. I could (and will) write an op-ed just on this.
Here’s the other: I hope I’m wrong, but I fear there’s a chance that Molly will never run for public office again.
This would be an immense tragedy. I told her years ago that I’d like to see her in the governor’s mansion someday. I can think of no one in the commonwealth who would be a better choice.
But as much as she loves serving the public, I’ve seen the toll that the lies, the hateful language and the personal attacks have taken on her. No one should have to tolerate these things - much less someone of her sweet nature and unassailable moral character.
It also should be pointed out that there were people who ostensibly supported Molly who also pushed the limits of civility - completely in contrast to how we were running our campaign. The negative tone of the statements they used in their advocacy just added fuel to the fire.
I think Molly’s story serves as a perfect example of why we have such dysfunctional governance in America. People who actually want to serve the public, and who want to move the country forward, and who would likely be the best leaders, are not willing to expose themselves, along with their families and friends, to the kind of ugliness they must endure to get into a position to actually serve.
Who can blame them? Why should a propensity for voluntary masochism be a prerequisite to serving in public office? Being thick-skinned does not equate to being insensitive (thank goodness).
Shouldn't we all applaud someone who's executed his or her public duties with utter integrity and asks for the opportunity to continue to do so for another four years, all while refusing to descend into the toxic waste pit of personal attacks and power-brokering that constitutes contemporary American politics?
In Hampton, there are only 10 or so people responsible for 99 percent of the hateful behavior, but they yell so loudly that it would be easy to assume their numbers are far greater. Everyone in the city knows who they are, and fortunately in this case, they didn’t have the resources to spread their poison farther than they did.
But what if they had unlimited sources of anonymously donated funding to enable them to spread their effluent and inject their lies into the national political zeitgeist? We’ll have plenty of opportunity in the next few months to experience the cancerous effect of unrestrained, hate-filled lies in the federal-level races, mostly fueled by Super-PAC money.
And the sad part of this is that it’s a strategy that succeeds because we, as voters, are too ignorant to be able to tell the difference. People and organizations trying to exert political control don’t pump millions of dollars into negative, deceitful advertising because it doesn’t work. It does work – proven by how we fall for their propaganda.
Sometimes, the message isn’t an outright lie - just outright deceit. Lobbyists for such industries as big oil and coal have become particularly adept at this type of spin. Locally, we’re seeing it with the propaganda currently being pumped out by the consortium put together to build the second Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth.
As consumers of information, we would be well-served to assume that all negative attacks, as well as opinions delivered by any well-heeled organization pushing an agenda - whether in the form of commentary or advertising - are lies. It’s not always the case, but the odds are greatly in favor of such. We also should consider any candidate who claims to have no influence over the message of his or her supporting Super PACs to be either liars or too oblivious to be worthy of public office.
At the voting booth, we should punish the candidates associated with the perpetrators of these lies, regardless of party affiliation. This way, we’ll also punish those who paid for the lies by making their wealth powerless. It’s the only chance we have of pushing the electoral process in America to a point where those who speak truthfully, and with civility and intellect, have an equal voice.
It also may help prevent dedicated public servants and leaders like Molly Ward from being chased out of the political process because they don’t want their lives, or those of their families, to be polluted by constant hateful assaults.
This isn't about being liberal or conservative. It's about truthfulness, civility and behaving in a morally and ethically tolerable manner.
(Michael Rau is a mass communications consultant who lives in Virginia Beach. He served as a strategic and media advisor to the Molly Ward for Mayor campaign)