Why Would Anyone Want to Run for Office These Days?

We had a primary election here this past Saturday and voter turnout was low … somewhere around 43 percent. And that’s the percentage of registered voters. A lot of people don’t even register, so measured against the larger number — all the eligible voters — the number will be even smaller. That’s embarrassing. And it’s shameful.

I’m always amazed that anyone in their right mind would want to be a candidate for a major political office. Having been on the inside for many years, I can tell you that it’s almost impossible to measure the sacrifice most of these people make. Why, for instance, should a man or woman who has settled on a career and reached some degree of success … why should they put all that on hold and run for Congress?

Even if they win, the glamour wears off very quickly. As a freshman member of Congress, you may be a big deal at home, but you are a nobody in Washington.  And you have expense and inconvenience ordinary folks don’t realize. For instance, most members of Congress have to maintain two homes — one in Washington and one in their home district.

Then there’s the commute. Constituents expect their representatives to spend time in their home districts, listening to their complaints and demands. Before he came back to Hawaii and was elected governor here, Neil Abercrombie served in the U.S. House for 20 years. During that time, he averaged between 20 and 25 round trips between Washington and Honolulu every year and, with the best possible connections, that’s twelve hours actually in the air … each way.

From my personal experience and knowledge, I know that most of these people are in public service for the right reasons: they want to make a difference. For that opportunity, they’re willing to go through the inconvenience and all the uncertainty. And they suffer the indignity of being called a crook by some bozo because they took a position with which he disagrees. That’s especially galling when you know there’s a 50-50 chance that person didn’t even bother to vote.

For almost nine years, I ran the Office of Information and Complaint for the City of Honolulu. Every so often, when a particularly obnoxious person would telephone me with a complaint of some kind, I’d call the County Clerk to see if he was registered to vote. About a third of the time, it would turn out that he wasn’t.

I remember one guy in particular who really got to me. He demanded immediate action and said, “I’m a taxpayer and I pay your salary”. I took care of his complaint, then sent him a letter explaining how I had handled the matter. I also said in the letter that I was including a full refund … the pro-rated portion of his property taxes that went to my salary: two-and-a-half cents. I put three pennies in the envelope and told him to keep the change.