Is Electing Good Leaders Enough?

Recall the Mayor? Charter reform?  Good Government Initiatives? Recent op ed pieces by Katy Sorenson, Norman Braman, Merritt Stierheim and Carlos Gimenez have all raised questions to me about the limited scope and context of the discussion.

Electing good people to public office can never be an end in itself.  They easily get co-opted by the prevailing system. Effective government reflects the need for (1) a smart governmental structure, (2) regular recruitment and training of talented and ethical people, (3) an educated citizenry and a vital press, as well as (4) constant vigilance by strong, independent non-profit organizations that can stimulate voters to action.   Miami Dade County needs to attend to all of these elements.

A significant part of the problem South Florida faces is that campaign money and elite opinion so often go hand in hand in defining a limited set of spokespeople, a constricted array of relevant information, and ultimately what is possible.  Leaders in business, politics, journalism, and the cultural realms all to often become insular and self-referential.  They seldom bother to talk to or become involved in grass roots advocacy groups, seeing them as ineffective, which is sometimes true.  Nor do such leaders get involved in what they see as windy discussions to build broader coalitions between interest groups.  Cynicism grows between business and cultural leaders and wealthy advocates on the one hand, and the largely unheard from non-profit groups on the other.  As a result, high priced lobbyists, campaign contributors and their favored political candidates then largely rule the roost.

Compounding the problem is that the local press – TV as well as print- seldom addresses the real nature of political and economic power in our region or the roles played by non-profits. With some conspicuous exceptions, the press all to often merely act as boosters or reflect the clout of celebrity-wealthy individuals.

A major disconnect also exists between higher education and local politics – though  UM, MDC and FIU are slowly lurching in the direction of the new buzzword “civic engagement.” All to often, however, such notions are sometimes constrained under the mantle of entrepreneurialism – and deference to corporate fundraising.  Overall, in my experience, most university faculty who could add so much to local dialogue have little ongoing involvement with local organizations  (often fearful of tenure or university displeasure) while political leaders seldom listen to what they consider to be the esoteric language of academics in ivory towers.

Overall, this culture of cynicism has come to mark Miami Dade politics and advocacy organizations as well. Activists burn out. Their organizations lack staff, funding or hope of influencing governmental decisions. There is a lack of continuity in institutional memory by government or vigilance by non-profit organizations – while paid lobbyists are always on the job.  A number of effective local organizations and programs do exist, from the Miami Workers Center and the Human Services Coalition to the growing number of community gardens, yet the broader visions and quality of leadership that could come from such groups remains stuck in our tropical muck.

A final thought: people who want better leadership need themselves to be involved – by joining a local organization, volunteering to serve on an advisory committee, attending meetings of their local government, working with a youth group, volunteering at the library or local park. Blaming Carlos Alvarez is overly simplistic.

Ultimately, the scope of public advocacy in Miami Dade County is rather weak and getting worse, a condition few “leaders” seem to recognize in any meaningful way. We need to appreciate that good government and visionary leadership needs broad involvement in behalf of an awakened more enlightened public.

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