From time to time I'm asked to speak to various groups where the occasional politician or aspiring glad-hander can be found in the audience — or, as I like to refer to them, fresh meat. For more years than I care to count, I've managed to make a living off these folks, lampooning their foibles, their egos, their delusions of grandeur — from the city council candidate who wakes up every morning humming Hail to the Chief to the hapless pol who couldn't find his keister with the help of a tracking chip, Lassie and a hall of mirrors.
These people may well seem to be public servants to you. They are annuities to me.
Until very recently, much like you probably, I would read the St. Petersburg Times' recommendations of candidates and think to myself, "How hard was this to do?"
After all, whether you agree with a recommendation, the process always seemed to be fairly cut and dried. Either candidates are capable of performing the duties demanded of an office or they're not. How tough could this possibly be?
Then last month I was invited to join the paper's editorial board. I was even taught the secret handshake. In addition to now writing editorials, I was assigned the task of helping to interview all 735 Tampa City Council candidates — or at least it seemed that many.
Of course, there also were the five candidates vying to become the next mayor of Tampa, which, considering the city's finances, would seem to be a bit like yearning to become the prime minister of Groucho Marx's Freedonia.
Until last month, in nearly 40 years in this craft, I had spent only one day as an editorial writer, filling in at the Chicago Sun-Times when the department found itself short-handed. I scribbled something like 14 opinion pieces for the paper. Toward the end of my shift, hunched over my keypad, exhausted and working on my third pack of cigarettes, the editorial page editor stopped by and suggested we needed something on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Yalta Conference.
"Are we for it? Or against it?" was all I asked before pounding something out. There was not a lot of time for chin rubbing.
But in all the years spent writing about political candidates, I had never been involved in the editorial vetting process. The experience was nowhere as easy as I thought it would be.
Of the 29 City Council and five mayoral candidates who walked through the door, almost all of them were earnest, fairly likeable, well-intended people who genuinely had the best interests of the city at heart.
Some were essentially one-issue candidates — usually panhandling. Many had never attended a City Council meeting or at best had watched a few sessions on television. This struck me as odd. If you want to serve on City Council, shouldn't you at least have some exposure to it? This isn't like fantasizing about going out with Jennifer Aniston where you merely imagine what you might do — or whether you'll be any good at it.
I basically looked for two broad attributes in the city candidates: did they understand how the City Council, and by extension how government, actually worked, and were they temperamentally suited for the job?
The City Council is a small legislative body. Collegiality and the ability work well with others is a must.
Some met what I felt was a modest standard. Others did not. One candidate, for example, refused to even sit in the reception area because he did not want to have to say hello to an opponent we were interviewing at the time. So much for dealing with controversial issues.
To be sure, for myself this process was fraught with a degree of schizophrenia. I'll be the first to admit that as a columnist, the more a candidate is certifiably crazier than Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, the happier I am. I do need the material, after all.
And there is no question that if some of these folks manage to actually get elected, I'll be in column clover for years to come.
But as an editorial board member on my maiden voyage of passing a modicum of judgment on a candidate's fitness for office, I also have to wear a different hat in considering the more overarching need for good government and what is best for the city of Tampa.
Life can be so cruel. After decades in this business I'm expected to be — high-toned.
Oh, on the Yalta Conference thing. I think we were for it, although for the life of me I can't remember why.