I’m dismayed by the harsh, cynical political rhetoric that has characterized Congress recently and now the presidential race.
As a nation, we deserve better. It’s time for the citizenry to demand elected officials who actually want to govern with civility, moderation and bipartisanship.
This is not an idle conviction. It comes out of my long experience in the public arena where I worked with several dozen U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, governors, other statewide officials, legislators and local government officials. Given my experience with all these elected officials, I believe my aspiration is totally realistic.
My first experience had a huge impact on me, my career and my view of how elected officials should govern. As a young tiger, fresh out of Washington State University’s Graduate School of Political Science, I arrived in Olympia to work for Gov. Dan Evans. The moderate, pragmatic Republican served an unprecedented three consecutive terms.
We staffers would have walked through fire for him. Why? Not because of harsh rhetoric and negative attacks, but because Evans had the ability to inspire others.
As with many other young Evans staffers who went on to a career in public service, I was deeply inspired by his vision for our state’s future and the forward-looking, cutting-edge public policies he fearlessly championed. I discovered the amazing power created when people are fired up and working together for a worthy, challenging goal. You get that gut feeling that you’re making a difference — even, perhaps, making history.
From my early experience, I came to realize it was important to focus my time and energy on making a difference. That helped me set priorities.
I have vivid memories of the lessons in political courage I learned from Evans. He taught us that political timidity rarely solved important problems.
Three decades later, I learned some tough lessons during the 2004 Gregoire-Rossi governor’s race, the most controversial election in Washington’s history. The lessons revolved around integrity.
During the election recounts, I was reproached by both parties. Both sued me. The Democrats were sure the (pick an expletive) Republican Secretary of State was working overtime, down and dirty, to elect the GOP’s Dino Rossi by not complying with their proposed changes in the recount.
The Republicans were sure that if I only had some backbone I could change what was happening when the lead switched to the Democrats’ Chris Gregoire. I weathered blistering attacks on talk radio and in the blogs. Even some long-time political friends and allies were angry with me for not “doing something” or for positions I took on recount procedures and legal briefs for court cases.
That didn’t bother me. After conducting dozens of recounts — including two hotly contested congressional races — while serving as Thurston County auditor, I knew exactly what to do.
Moreover, I was doing the right thing: Complying with my oath to uphold the constitution and laws of the state of Washington. And while I was angry with King County for major mistakes and a lack of openness (and used my bully pulpit to say so); I also understood it was King County Executive Ron Sims, not the Secretary of State, who had authority over that county’s elections operations.
Despite both political parties’ sharp criticism, I came through it all well and was re-elected overwhelmingly in 2008. The public appreciated the fact that I didn’t play political games and didn’t put my finger on the scale. They viewed me as conducting the recounts with integrity, as doing the right thing. The lesson is that credibility — the public trust — is crucial to success in the public arena.
Throughout the years, I’ve observed that personal integrity and high ethical standards are nonnegotiable. In his first inaugural address, Dan Evans said, “I’d rather cross the aisle than cross the people.”
It’s time to replace the harsh rhetoric and cynicism with true governmental leadership that inspires and elevates rather than diminishes faith in government. We can and should expect nothing less out of candidates for the presidency of the United States.
Sam Reed, who served three terms as Washington secretary of state and 23 years as Thurston County auditor, is a member of the 2016 Olympian Board of Contributors.