A couple of days ago a friend commented on the op-ed I wrote on December 30th. He thought it might have been a tad pessimistic, but he also said it might have also been a tad true. About the only response I could muster was that he was a tad accurate on both counts. People who don’t really know me often assume that I’m a pessimist at heart, particularly when it comes to what has been my home town for over ten years. They also assume that I don’t like Emporia. They couldn’t be more wrong!
There’s a lot to like about this town – the wrap-around front porches, the blurbs in the Gazette’s crime blotter about “dogs at large” or “worthless checks,” watching schoolchildren on their way to school toting backpacks that weigh more than they do (a harbinger of the burdens to come, perhaps), the Flint Hills, hosting international students whose minds are pregnant with potential and dreams, the blue collar work ethic, the Stetsons, and the bib overalls.
But, the things I love about Emporia often collide with reality. I don’t like the slum lords, the chronic poverty, the payday loan shops, the revolving door of high dollar consultants, the decaying old homes, the empty storefronts, or economic development that relies far too heavily on low wage manufacturing to solve our problems. As I said on the 30th, I believe something’s gotta give.
Another friend recently told me that he was waiting for me to throw my hat in the ring again in the upcoming City Commission election. He seemed surprised when I told him I’d found more productive outlets to express myself and contribute to the welfare of Emporia.
It’s not that I find politics and government unproductive channels. I love the give and take, the debate, and the slings and arrows that are part of the public arena. I ran for office a few years ago, believing that we needed to change some things if Emporia was going to thrive in the future. First and foremost, I believed that we needed to shift our focus away from low wage manufacturing and to set our sights on the sweet spots of the new global economy - information technology and management, high wage manufacturing, small/lean companies ready and able to compete in the marketplace. I believed that we needed to confront our poverty and slum lord issues. I believed we needed to find ways to retrain our workforce and to stem the tide of graduates who inevitably leave Emporia as soon as the sheepskin is in their hands.
I’m no less passionate about these things today. The challenges are still there. In fact, the problems have become even more acute over time. I can’t say that our window of opportunity has closed, but I can say that time is of the essence. Something’s gotta give!
If I believe that strongly, then, why am I not running for office?
There are two answers to that question. The first answer is easy. I’m not the only guy in town who feels the way I do. There are, and will be, other candidates who want to be part of carving out a better future for Emporia. I’m going to listen and support those who have the vision and courage to meet the challenges head on.
But, politics isn’t the only area of meaningful service available. I saw this a year ago when I had the privilege to work on the Emporia Cleansweep campaign. I’m told that it was one of the most successful community campaigns in recent memory. Over a million pounds of trash were hauled away. Neighborhoods were cleaned up. Volunteers contributed thousands of man hours to the effort. There were businessmen, truck drivers, mechanics, bankers, realtors, students, and even a few politicians. But, for me, there was more. I saw that some problems won’t go away so easily or can’t be deposited into dumpsters. This is a great town, but there are a lot of lonely people who’ve become disconnected from the rest of us for one reason or another. There are widows without support systems and the poverty I saw went far deeper than cold statistics. These are the problems that cry out for solutions that can’t be solved by political decree.
For me, the most productive outlet going forward is to be a part of what Irish statesman Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” that serve society from the bottom up. In time, with the right political leadership, the economics of Emporia can change for the better. But some things won’t change with time. We’ll always have the lonely, the disconnected, the neglected, and the forgotten. That’s a task that only the little platoons are equipped to handle.