Some candidates for Berkeley Heights Township Council have touted their business acumen as a key qualification for running our municipal government. It has been a centerpiece of their campaign, which is appropriate given their accomplishments, and I don’t doubt their claims or sincerity. I do agree that such experience can be useful and, in my 25 years living here, I have supported business-savvy and other talented candidates across party lines. I believe a mix of qualifications and perspectives is essential to representing the broad interests of the governed and handling a variety of issues, and have voted accordingly.
However, I believe that exercising good judgment and acting in good faith and ethics are also vital qualifications for anyone in public service. In the case of a tough choice between candidates, their character and judgment are what should tip the scale—not party loyalty or self-interest—because these qualities are more likely to produce the best outcome for the most people, which should be the goal of democratic government. Good character and judgment are hard to model consistently, given our human foibles, and are harder to cite on a résumé than business successes. But, despite what cynics say, these qualities are not outmoded and can be gleaned if one pays close attention to what people say and do and asks questions. (I am not talking about making scurrilous attacks, as in the muckraking political flyers that landed in my mailbox recently.)
The League of Women Voters is now soliciting questions for its virtual candidates’ forum on October 8th. I understand that the LWV may reject questions on national issues as irrelevant to local races. Opinion letters about past elections have urged me to ignore national candidates when considering local ones, under the same argument, that they have no bearing. I think that is nonsense.
For one thing, a candidate’s opinion of statements and actions by, for instance, the U.S. president (whose business dealings are under scrutiny amid reports of possible fraud and tax evasion) is relevant because it reflects their political priorities and because it sheds light on their own character and judgment, both of which come into play when making decisions for the town.
It is also fair game. I recall a keen debate last spring over which primary candidates could authentically bear their party’s mantle. There is no rush to shed the mantle now because those candidates, like their opponents, are relying on the party faithful for votes. But if one carries the banner, one should have to defend it, especially if one promotes transparency and presumably backs fellow party candidates.
In the November 3rd election, it is my duty to carefully evaluate all candidates as best I can. To be properly informed, I think they should go on the record on important matters of public interest, such as whether they condone certain conduct. For starters, how about these pertinent questions:
- Should someone default on loans, take dubious deductions, and exploit every loophole, no matter how obscene, in order to evade taxes for years?
- Would Berkeley Heights residents be “smart” to play a similar shell game, perhaps manipulating or falsifying property assessments to reduce what they owe?
- Does paying taxes to support town services make someone a chump?
- As a matter of principle, is it fair for average folks to diligently obey the tax code, and the law in general, while high flyers thumb their noses at civic obligations?
- Do they agree with the president’s flouting of public health measures and his assertion that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody”?
- Do New Jerseyans somehow deserve the covid pandemic devastation, and should they get less federal aid, because they live in a so-called “blue” state?
If the answers are all “No” I would like to hear it. The way I see it, whether a person dodges the truth, dodges taxes, dodges military service, dodges the norms of elected office, or dodges the duty to deal with a crisis, it’s all an evasion of responsibility. Likewise, dodging questions about supporting such a person and being silent on such conduct out of fear of alienating voters, which is rampant among politicians across the country, constitutes a failure of leadership. It is incumbent on all of us to speak the truth and have the courage of our convictions.
For several years now, it seems like one powerful person has been jamming people’s ethical frequencies with his noise and bending their moral compasses—and political institutions—to his own selfish ends. It is long past time to send a clear signal on what is right and what is wrong. Skills and experience and character all matter. Integrity and decency matter. Candidates asking for the public’s trust should affirm that they matter, should demand these qualities from fellow party members, and should publicly repudiate those who act otherwise. I call on our elected officials and candidates of all political stripes to speak frankly so the voters can know where they stand.