6.02.2007

Power to the People

In government school, we learned that there are three dominant
political cultures in our country. In the South, politics is about
the status quo, in terms of who's in power and who's not. In the
Northeast, politics is a profession, best left to lifers, and a little
corruption is part of how that game works. Then there's a band of the
country from the West Coast to Minnesota where politics is
participatory, people are supposed to be engaged, and politicians are
supposed to listen to them. Everywhere else is some combination of
those three archetypes.

While all styles have their pros and cons, and it would be naive to
uphold one as better than the other without understanding the deep,
deep influences that have led to these perspectives, I do believe it
is important that politicians render their public service to the
public and not themselves. Power can be intoxicating, and sometimes,
even in places where a little slime is considered acceptable, drinking
too deeply can get you in a heap of trouble.

The best policy in terms of dealing with the danger of abuse of power
is not to play defense but to play offense: don't just avoid wielding
power selfishly and unscrupulously, but see power as something you are
to steward on behalf of others who lack power. When you take action
in this way, you become an influential politician, ironically one who
is powerful because you are rooted and principled and can't be bought
or bullied. Most importantly, you become a politician who can sleep
at night and look your kids in the eye.

I say all this to say that I was proud to know and support two
candidates from last month's city council at large primary: Andy Toy
and David Oh. Much has been made about each candidate's quest to
become Philadelphia's first Asian city council member, and certainly
both of these upstanding guys have done the Asian community proud.

But their value to our town is greater than their ethnicity and their
ethnic relationships. These two leaders are the kind of public
servants who seek to wield power in the way I described it above:
actively for those in Philadelphia who lack it, not selfishly for
themselves.

Sadly, while David Oh made the cut and will hope to win a seat in
November, Andy Toy fell about 9,000 votes short after a well-run
campaign. Still, regardless of the results, I'm honored to know both
of them, and know that our city would be in good hands if they were in
positions of political power.

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