Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Grassroots!


“I am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more.”

- Thomas Jefferson


The 2007 city commission race here in Emporia is over. Bobbie Agler, Jeff Longbine, and Kevin Nelson are our commissioners elect. The Gazette put it this way:

“Emporia voters ventured into the “northwest territory” Tuesday, electing Bobbie Agler, Jeff Longbine and Kevin Nelson to the Emporia City Commission. All three men are businessmen who live in northwestern Emporia.”

That says a lot about our state of local affairs.

I wish them well. I’m ready to support them and I’m also fully prepared to challenge them. The issues that brought me into this campaign a year ago haven’t magically disappeared since yesterday’s election. There’s much work to be done. The twin issues of high poverty and slum lords haven’t gone away. Our property taxes are excessive, and still climbing. Economic development is still as stagnant today as it was yesterday and businesses are still leaving. Payday loan shops are beginning to dominate the downtown corridor. There’s every bit as much disillusionment today as there was yesterday.

Jeff O’Dell from KVOE News asked me if I was going to run in the next election, which is about a year and a half away. I told him that I’m going to hold my options open in the long term. In the short term I’m going to begin developing a grassroots coalition of the disillusioned, disappointed, and disenfranchised. Last night’s turnout was only 20%. As I watched the incoming results with other candidates the most frequent comments revolved around that disheartening number. Most said they just didn’t understand it. I told everyone that while I couldn’t justify the low turnout, I could understand it. When people feel that their voices aren’t being heard and that the interests of one part of the community have a stranglehold on power, they just tune out. They’d like to see change, but they’ve been through this so many times it’s become difficult to either believe that change is possible or that there’s even hope for something better. To them, Bette Midler’s words, “Why bother,” ring alarmingly true. That’s the reality of Emporia right now; the numbers bear that sad truth out.

So, where to from here? The practical logistics of this coalition of the disillusioned, disappointed, and disenfranchised must now follow. First, it means working on voter registration, particularly in the Hispanic community, which is grossly under-represented. It’s going to take a massive, grassroots effort to make that a reality. Second, it means developing slates of reform candidates. If the Chamber of Commerce, the powerfully connected, and the business community can put forth slates of approved candidates, so can the disenfranchised and disillusioned. Third, it means keeping the issues that matter before the public. One of the things I’m proudest of in the campaign was the fact that I was the voice for change in this city and brought the issues into the light. That effort will continue. Fourth, it means descending on city hall in two ways. First, there is a need to get people in front of the commissioners. I still have vivid memories of the day the commissioners were considering eliminating the taxi subsidy for elderly, disabled, and poor. The sight of people pushing walkers, carrying oxygen bottles, and pleading their collective case stood in such stark contrast to the powerful, who seemed all to willing to consider abandoning them at a time of need. The only thing that changed that was a massive public outcry. We need much more of that now. The second mechanism is public petition. We have the right to petition our government that right needs to be exercised. Among the issues that need to be looked at is the funding of the Regional Development Authority and a full internal audit of the city’s financial records over the past ten years. There are questions that need to be raised. Why is it that, when city departments plead with the commission to prosecute slum lords, that the request was deferred time and time again? Why does funding for the Regional Development Authority, which now gets a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars a year and yet hasn’t brought a business into Emporia in close to ten years, supersede pay raises for public safety personnel?

This much and more needs to be done from a grassroots level. City government here in Emporia has not been responsive to its citizens. We must now make it responsive.

You may be wondering about the portrait used in the introduction to this post. The man portrayed is William Wilberforce, one of Britain’s greatest statesmen. He was elected to parliament in his youth during the eighteenth century and fought for close to fifty years to eradicate the scourge of slavery from the British Empire. It took him twenty-two years to convince parliament to outlaw the transport of slaves to the New World and another quarter of a century to outlaw slavery in the British Empire altogether. Almost fifty years! He was often vilified as an religious zealot or branded as a traitor. There must have been times when Wilberforce felt like the village idiot. There must have been times when he felt like surrendering to the status quo. I suspect if he’d been a Roman Catholic instead of an Evangelical he might have become the patron saint of lost causes instead of St. Jude. But, he persevered. He believed in the rightness of his cause and refused to give in. In the end he won, and the world is immeasurably better for his effort

The issues here in Emporia may not seem as momentous as those of Wilberforce’s day, but the issues that I’ve raised are, in their own way, parallels. Wilberforce refused to surrender to the status quo, and I won’t either. I’m not sure if I have two generations of life left to me, but I intend to use whatever time I do have to fight for those things I believe are right. The causes are too important for me to just shrink away like some potted plant. I came into this battle for the long haul and it now appears that it will indeed be a long, uphill fight for the right. So, the engagement, the dialogue, the door to door canvassing, the voter registration, the challenging, the listening, the organizing, and petitioning now begin.

I’ll see you on the front lines!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I left a comment on the Gazette's website stating maybe we should divide our commissioners into districts so the whole city can be represented. As I said before our public tends to be ignorant and hope for the best. SAD! I'm behind you. Doug

Richard L said...

Hi Phil ... thanks for your comment over at "Pilgrim's Progress". Glad you enoy the images. Sure - feel free to post images - a link back to Pilgrim's Progress will be enough.

Interesting to see your mention of Wilberforce on this post - have you seen the movie "Amazing Grace"?

Blessings
Richard