Great public speakers always have a gimmick that gets their audience involved. With Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Youth and Children, it's the Stand-up Test. At the Pasco-Hernando Community College auditorium last week, Levine asked the 200 or so parents gathered for a PTA meeting to stand if they knew their two representatives in the Florida Legislature. About 20 people stood, and four or five of them sat down when he reminded them that Connie Mack and Bob Graham are U.S. senators. Of those left standing, he asked, "Okay, now if your local senator or House member knows you, remain standing."
I felt rather lonely up there in front of all those people with only five other audience members. Levine had proved a point.
Noting first that this was a self-selecting group that cares about kids, Levine's voice began to get louder. "If you've got a problem with the fact that more than 1,000 of your own babies are on waiting lists for child care because their parents can't afford it ... if you have a problem with the fact that handicapped children, rather than getting the care they need, are being told that there is no money in the budget, wait till next year _ as if you could put a child in a freezer who needs care tonight _ well, that's just too bad. Because with the exception of about 2 percent of you, the rest of you are political wimps. You didn't know who to call, and if you did, you would have been a stranger."
I realize that I devoted a good deal of space to Levine's statements in a column a few days ago. But with the proposed Children's Services Council on the ballot here Nov. 6, I wanted to echo this "political wimp" story. The reason we need this council, of course, is because our politicians on all levels have failed over the years to develop and finance programs to meet adequately the needs of children and families. That is partly because the influential lobbyists were out there pushing for other programs. And partly because four of five parents don't vote.
Levine, who has directed the nonprofit center in Tallahassee for 12 years and has two young children, is out to push parents into a more active political role. But he acknowledges it's an uphill battle.
He describes the typical election day in America for a working parent: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the hours the polls are open.
"In our house, my wife and I are up early, matching socks, putting cheese toast on the table, signing homework, packing backpacks, putting kids in safety seats, and at 10 after 7 we're on our way to school, child care, work. Now, do we say, it's Election Day ... I've got to drive to the polls? No, we don't do that. Some say if you were really committed, Levine, you'd vote during your lunch hour. Well, I looked lunch hour up in the dictionary and it said, "Archaic.'
"We vote where we live. We don't vote where we work. That law was passed when there was no such thing as traffic ... two working parents ... single parenting."
The end of the day for working parents is no more convenient. So we see these low voter turnout rates. If we approach politicians to change the law because it's not working, Levine says, that politician will point to the name on the door and explain how the system is working just fine for him.
The point is, if only 20 percent of an identifiable group such as young parents is voting, those people aren't likely to have a great influence in the political process.
Children can't vote. They don't have many lobbyists, save for a handful of advocates like Levine. Programs that benefit them have been steamrollered while we've spent zillions on our military and other "priorities." We're seeing the sad results of that shortsightedness as the United States falls behind other industrialized nations in economics and education.
It's time to stop being political wimps. People who care about children must find time to know their representatives and to hold them accountable.