In politics, Washington is considered the big leagues, with states the minor leagues and local governments rookie ball at best. Politicians are said to work their way up from school board to federal office, as if only the best of the best make it to the drained swamp along the Potomac. I have always been suspicious of this view, and after covering politics for two decades I have come to dismiss it as a Washington conceit.
States and municipalities have their share of elected cranks, fools, charlatans and incompetents. We see them in the news all the time. And yet these supposedly lower levels of government, where the supposedly less capable and less serious politicians toil, are the ones that balance their budgets, pay their bills, keep their roads paved, and generally return decent value to the taxpayers.
Among the hot topics in Washington this week are impeachment, scandals at the VA and the FBI, and the latest list of Washington’s 50 “most beautiful people.” If a New Hampshire publication tried to rate the sexual attractiveness of the state’s political players, it would be ridiculed as deeply unserious. But this is an annual ritual in Washington.
In baseball, the greatest players never choose to stay in AA. They all aspire to the big leagues. In politics, many of the smartest, most capable people serve at the local or state level for a few years, then return to their private lives. They chair town councils, run legislative committees, serve on zoning boards and governors’ commissions. I think the odds are pretty good that wherever you live, your local budget committee chairman is probably smarter and more serious about public service than your member of Congress.
One of the greatest politicians I ever saw was a North Carolina state senator named Hamilton Horton. He was brilliant, kind and wise. When he spoke, everyone listened. He would have been a tremendous governor (his grandfather was one) or U.S. senator. But he did not covet that life.
I have interviewed many governors, senators and presidential candidates, and I have yet to meet one who could match the wit or charm of Ham Horton a one-time state senator who will never be famous. I have interviewed too many government officials, both elected and appointed, to count. And some of the sharpest, most helpful, most competent ones were local clerks, mayors and board members.
P.J. O’Rourke (a Granite Stater who attends his town meeting) famously called Congress a parliament of whores. The institution, once the great hope of the republic, is less popular than cockroaches, according to honest-to-goodness polls. It probably would poll worse than Ebola today.
I think few Americans, and certainly few Granite Staters, would say they like cockroaches more than their local or state government. The reason for that should be pretty obvious. For the most part, people who run for local and state office are serious-minded people trying to improve life in the places where they actually live. Some people like that also run for Congress. But the lure of the TV cameras and the big salaries and the ability to tell strangers far away how to live their lives often attracts a different kind of candidate.
When people advocate sending more money and power to Washington, I cringe not only because handing control over your money and your life to strangers in a distant national capital is about as smart as doing your online banking over an open wifi connection in Serbia. I cringe because the people right here at home have shown themselves to be a lot more capable when it comes to handling money and power. If budgets were batting averages, it would be obvious that Washington is not home to most of the major league talent.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.