Local Politics: Are we all losing our minds?

Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Dinah Gottschalk is a volunteer in the Waynesboro Democratic Committee. She’s a committed Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, and she’s been working hard this campaign season at the local Waynesboro Dems election headquarters in Willow Oak Plaza with me and dozens of other Waynesboro and Augusta County Democrats.

She was, to say the least, a bit distraught when she showed up for a shift running the HQ late last week. A shopping cart had done some pretty extensive damage to her new car in the parking lot at Wal-Mart a few minutes earlier, and it appeared to be intentional, and aimed at the Barack Obama sticker on the back bumper.

I’m not writing this column to point the finger at Republicans for being so dastardly as to scratch up a new car because the owner dared to put a Barack Obama sticker on it. Or to get too worked up about how friends in Stuarts Draft who had put up Sam Rasoul and Mark Warner signs in their front yards months ago suddenly had those signs and their new Obama-Biden signs stolen en masse the night that they placed the new signs in their front yards. It’s, unfortunately, not just Republicans who do these kinds of things – I’ve heard reports about how an oversized GOP “I Am Voting For The Chick” sign in Fishersville was defaced by someone who strategically inserted the word Not to alter the message, and I can only guess that it wasn’t a McCain-Palin supporter that would have done that.

What I’m trying to get at is how silly this all seems to me – and how it makes me worry for the future of our democracy that it seems to have become so personal.

Case in point: A friend who is a radio producer in the Valley and who has been involved in local politics over the years was telling me how he had decided to serve as campaign manager for a friend in a recent local board of supervisors race, and in the process had people calling his advertisers to rudely suggest to them that they end their business relationships with him and in one extreme case had someone take photos of his children while they were waiting for the school bus one morning in an act that had him start fearing for the safety of his family.

I wish I could say that it hasn’t gotten that bad for me since I made my own foray into local politics earlier this year running for city council, but I had something similar pop up a couple of weeks ago when a disgruntled reader sent e-mails to advertisers on the Augusta Free Press website to demand that they drop their advertising with the AFP. This after a local campaign season that saw complete strangers posting comments in forums at newsleader.com questioning my living arrangements and one of my city-council race opponents telling voters that I had only moved into Waynesboro a few days before the election from Crozet.

(For the record, I have never lived in Crozet, and I’ve lived in or around Waynesboro all of my life, with a record of service on city-government advisory bodies only open to city residents to prove it.)

Oh, and I almost forgot about how I received a visit from a friend who works at a local newspaper where I got my start in journalism back during the summer who told me that he had received several phone calls from out-of-the-area-code numbers from people who wanted to know why I had been fired from that job. (Truth Squad: I left the News Virginian in 2000 to take a job at a newspaper in Charlottesville, and actually continued doing freelance work at the NV for several months afterward.)

And that’s not even counting the misrepresentations and blatant lies that political opponents spread about my policy positions – telling voters in door-to-door campaigning that I was going to raise their taxes when I made it clear that my first act as a council member would be to enact a property-tax decrease, and the low point coming when surrogates for one of my opponents told people at the polls on Election Day that my overriding intent for running for local office was to close down the Invista plant so that the city could take over the property to build a minor-league baseball stadium.

I have since come to realize that it doesn’t do any good to hold grudges for the things that people say or do during an election, because if I did, well, I’d have to hire a personal assistant just to keep track of all of them, honestly. I’ve reached out to, among others, the new mayor, Tim Williams, and I’m promising myself that I’m going to do the same thing come Nov. 5 with regard to some of my more vocal criticis in local Republican circles. I say this because I realize that all we’re trying to do is advocate for what we think is right, one, and two, you can’t really judge a person’s character by how they act during one of these contests, because things, to say the least, can get heated.

What has me worrying about the future of our democracy, to get back to what I was saying above, is, what happens when people like me who get involved in politics with the best of intentions say, Enough!, and decide that it’s not worth it anymore? I think this a legitimate concern, because our approach to politics has only become more jaded and cynical in recent years. It seems that we will never, ever be able to have an election where one side isn’t going on and on and on about, to borrow from our current discussions, how well Barack Obama did or didn’t know a ’60s radical, or whether or not Sarah Palin had an inappopriate extramarital relationship, or what about Jeremiah Wright or John Hagee or John McCain leaving his first wife for a million-heiress or Joe Biden’s plagiarism scandal or whatever other load of crap gets backed up in the toilet next.

Do we really need to drag each other down like this just to get our guys and gals elected? I mean, think about it. Either Barack Obama or John McCain is going to be our president three months hence. Can we escape the fact that about half our adult population is going to live their lives thinking that whoever between them ends up in the White House is a crook and thief and liar? Same for our local and state government. I’ve said in columns in the AFP that I think that the biggest mistake in my campaign was that I didn’t fight back against the smears of my opponents. Which makes me see myself as being more a part of the problem than I care to admit to being.

I don’t even know what I’m asking of you readers as an action item. And I say that because even as I’ve been writing this column to plead for the return of sanity and common sense to prevail I’ve been fighting battles on this front. It almost makes me think that too many of us can’t wait for the next juicy bit of gossip that they can e-mail to their friends or post anonymously in a web forum somewhere.

And in the meantime, our economy is in the tank, we’re fighting two foreign wars with no end in sight, and it’s almost a given at this point that our kids will be the first generation in American history to be worse off than their parents.

My view – we all just need a good shaking to get some common sense shocked back into us.


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