Blog Post: The Tripartite Identity of the Elected Official
November 30, 2011
I wish to clarify the complexity of the many hats that paint the broader strokes of our elected officials’ responsibilities. The elected official is at once a politician, a legislator, and a social worker.
Many candidates seem to be motivated to run for public office by one or two of these three roles, but few are driven by a desire and/or have the ability to adeptly act as all three. There is some degree of each in every elected official, but generally, one trait runs dominant.
There are the single-issue candidates who run on a policy platform, often drawing their inspiration from personal experience. These are the candidates that lobby for harsher penalties for DUIs because a family member was killed in a drunk-driving accident, who are frustrated by the de-funding of a school’s art program and wish to strengthen state investments in the arts, or a small businessman who has seen the costs of providing health care to his employees skyrocket and is determined to present some form of reform to the system.
These candidates are potentially legislators, and are potentially politicians, depending upon their motivations, methods, and base. Candidates who only care about their one pet issue, are willing to capitulate to the legislative/party leadership on every other issue (i.e. cast their vote not according to their best discretion, conscience, or the best interest of their constituents, but instead they were requested to by the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate), and who use this issue to make themselves the champions at the expense of their colleagues, these are the politicians.
These politicians know that the best way to get elected is to look a constituent in the eye, shake hands with a firm grip, and ask outright for their support. They will be quick to claim credit for all of the accomplishments of the legislature during their term, regardless of their contribution to the bill to law effort, or even of their initial support of the bill. These politicians will introduce bills that they subsequently withdraw from consideration only a few weeks later, never having had any intention to expend precious political capital on advancing the bill through committee. While it is true that most significant legislative efforts occur over the course of years, advancing a little further each legislative session, the politician introduced the bill only so as to return to his constituents to crow about how the bill was introduced and the people were represented.
These politicians are opportunists who are quick to use every opportunity to improve their image by jumping on a bandwagon and occupying themselves with the hottest, most controversial social issue of the moment. These politicians are less concerned with statutory language and budget mark-ups than their legislator colleagues, just as long as they can bring home the bacon to the district in the form of capital budget appropriations to their favorite supporters (i.e. earmarks/pork). The politicians are likely to prioritize attendance at a lobbyist dinner above a community meeting in the district, and is the most likely of all committee members to be absent at a hearing.
The primary concern of the politician is his own re-election and the advancement of his position, driven as he is by his ego and his ambition. Then there are the legislators. These are on a mission to advance a legislative agenda, get laws passed, and do work. These, as all elected officials must, have ambition and ego, but the legislator is driven by a higher cause to improve the State. The legislator is willing to work hard, stay late in the committee room, dive into the regulatory weeds, approach issues with skepticism and a serious desire to learn about the issues so that he may best negotiate what is best for the state, and after expending all of this sweat, he can allow the Governor, Speaker, President, or another colleague’s name be listed first as the bill’s sponsor. His aim is not for his own advancement so much as for the bill’s advancement. The implementation of the best possible policy for the people of his state, not only his own district, is what drives the legislator.
The legislator can, at times, be overlooked by the spotlight. He has found that his work is easier and more efficient when there are fewer detractors and less controversy about reimbursement rate adjustments for public utility contractors or about the specific regulatory restraints constructed around tax liens that are designed to prevent home loan mortgage abuse by lender sharks. The legislator drives the cogs of the legislature. The legislator recognizes that, at times, the greatest legislative accomplishment of a particular legislative session is to block poor legislation from passage. The legislator seeks to tweak the status quo in the name of improved governance.
The third hat of the elected official is that of the social worker. Constituent casework arguably defines the greatest proportion of the elected official’s responsibilities. Case work is often considered to be the least glamorous and most overlooked of the three hats. The case worker is the operator who connects constituents with the appropriate functions, offices, and bureaucrats in government, the non-profit world, and the private sector. He expedites processes and provides the most visible representation and assistance to the frustrated constituent. The case worker amplifies the voice and need of a particular constituent in a search for services. The title of his elected office grants the caseworker access to all sorts of doors. After all, the case worker is also a legislator who is one of a select few with the power to vote on how to spend billions of dollars of government revenues. Often it is through his energies spent as the case worker that the elected official is able to garner votes as an incumbent and retain office.
As a stool requires all three pegs to serve its stable function, so the elected official must play the part of all three: the politician, the legislator, and the social worker.
I hope, dear Reader, that this information has provided useful insight into the world of representative democracy.
The Baltimore Citizen
This was originally posted in Revealing Our Humanity.