The dictionary is of no real help when looking to define “public servant”. Jesus Christ was a public servant and it was through humility, personal sacrifice, taking risks, and maintaining a vision, that he served others best. It’s a style of leadership based on giving without the need for recognition. And it may be disappearing altogether.
Consider the service of Judge Charles Scott to our community since 1973, when he first served as an assistant city attorney and special assistant district attorney for 7 years, and then 26 years on the bench as a city judge and Caddo Parish district judge, and 7 years of service as district attorney. His loss is a devastating one for our community, and there are hardly any words that can express this sadness for the generations of this community he has served.
It is fitting, to call to mind the saying, “They don’t make men like him anymore”. And they don’t. In fact, a recent study of 18-29 year olds by Harvard University showed not only are young people disgusted with politics, and are skeptical of its usefulness to make meaningful change, there is also now a reluctance of good candidates to run for public office.
This is especially prevalent among young people, where only 1 out of 3 believe running for public office is honorable, and even fewer feel that the idea of working in some form of public service is appealing to them – and the numbers show it. In 2012, for example, nearly half of state legislative districts in our country did not have any competition from both major political parties, marking the lowest level of competition in over 10 years.
So, from where will the next generation of public servants be inspired to serve our communities, when only 1 in 3 believe running for public office is honorable?
That’s hard to say because our electorate increasingly is more interested in whether Kim Kardashian and Kanye West flew coach on a recent trip to Armenia, than they are to learn more about politics, since that requires a substantial investment time and energy, and yet offers few immediate benefits – particularly to the voter who is both disgusted by politics and believes their vote is unlikely to affect the outcome anyway.
For example, did you know that only 2 in 10 Americans know that there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Senate? Or that only 4 in 10 of us know that there are 3 branches of government (and also can name each of them)? Or that 21% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth? How about that more than two-thirds of Americans don’t know the issue involved in Roe v. Wade? Or that 25% of Americans can’t name the country that American fought and won its independence from?
It was Thomas Jefferson who explained that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be”.
That’s because knowledge is freedom in a democracy, and for our communities to attract the brightest talent to public service, we must have a more informed electorate. Fewer engaged voters will eventually reduce the pool of talented candidates to a handful of those barely worth keeping in office at all.
Consider the election coming up on May 2, regarding a bond initiative that would increase the debt of the Caddo Parish School System by $108 million to over $250 million, and which also renews a tax on property owners that generates $3 million in annual revenue for the Biomedical Research Foundation.
Now there’s no doubt that folks are busy these days, and working longer hours to make ends meet. In those cases, especially, it’s hard to become well-informed on property taxes or government spending. It’s just not a priority when the children have their homework to finish, baths to take, and checkbook needs to be balanced.
But we can’t just show up and check the box, without the same level of careful preparation and practice that a musician requires to play a musical instrument well, or a pilot needs to fly an airplane, or doctor acquires before performing a surgery. But unlike the unprepared pilot or doctor, being in the voting booth, and unprepared (or not informed enough) to vote, can have far more tragic consequences.
While it may be true that how any one of us votes may not matter much, it is how WE vote together, though, that has consequences. Our votes can encourage businesses to relocate to our community, or cause them to leave, through the taxes we vote for or the quality of candidates we elect. We can improve the education of our children, and increase the quality of our workforce, or we can spend millions of dollars on policies and programs that will do anything but that.
We can overregulate in some areas, and underrepresent those who need representation the most. We can allow special interests to exploit the least among us, or we can protect liberty and justice for all. It’s still “we the people”.
No, they may not be making men or women exactly like Judge Scott any longer, but we can grow folks more like him to serve the public as he did, through developing a more informed electorate – or, through our apathy, we can simply watch more good men and women run from office, instead.