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The politics of representing a constituency

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 6/19/2014, midnight

One of the most cherished and distinctive ingredients of American democracy is the right of constituents to expect their elected representatives to have a residency among them. That has been part of a belief from the outset that in order to properly represent citizens and residents of an electoral district or territory, one must know the issues and challenges of that geographical area. The best way to do that is to live, or at least have a legal residency, in the territory one runs to represent.

Well, the June primary season is over for many candidates, including the large field vying for the District 1 L.A. School Board seat made vacant by the recent death of long-time representative Marguerite LaMotte. The two surviving candidates George McKenna (45 percent of the vote) and Alex Johnson (24 percent of the vote) must now face one more electoral appointment with the constituents of District 1 on Aug. 12. Their race will be the only issue on the ballot. This will be a low incentive for a large turnout, but constituents do need to pay attention to the contest and vote one more time.

The issue of proper representation is the most important in this race. Sure, McKenna lives in the district and has done so for more than 35 years. Johnson also says he still lives in the geographical area of District 1.

But there the similarity stops. Clearly, Johnson wants to represent the more youthful voters in the District, while McKenna is a wise elder of the neighborhood. There is much to be said about bringing new, youthful ideas to the school board table. The main challenge however, is to be critically aware of the problems facing District 1 constituents on the school board, knowing how to articulate them and how to address them. In other words, simply being the younger candidate is no guarantor of proper representation for District 1. Knowing what issues are most bothersome in the district, and having a set of strategies to confront and resolve those issues is what the constituency needs. Youth alone will not serve that purpose.

If one does not know the problems to be solved, one is doubly behind and disregarded in getting them addressed, gaining access to the relevant resources needed, and in getting the problems solved. That’s RealPolitics 101.

Perhaps Mr. Johnson has more to offer than mere youth, and his candidate sponsorship by a famous Angeleno. Unfortunately, he has consistently decided to ignore, dismiss and disregard the constituents he wants to vote for him. That is, during the large number of public forums preceding the June primary, Johnson was a relentless no-show, even when organizers were told he would come. So, when the questions were asked of all the other candidates, including the write-in hopeful, like “What are the most critical issues facing District 1 currently?”—each but Johnson provided a thoughtful response so the public could see who would make the best representative for them on the school board.

To this day, the District 1 community does not know what real qualifications Johnson has to tangle with the other entrenched interests on the school board. If one does not have the guts to face one’s community of voters face-to-face, how can the constituents expect such courage in their representative behind closed doors? The issue of money and its distribution to each district area is already on the table and fair play will not be the order of the day. One has to walk in with a battle plan and the practiced skills to implement it so that District 1, as the “poverty-stricken” area, does not get shafted again. This is no time for beginners, neophytes or on-the-job-trainees. The constituents of District 1 simply cannot afford that luxury. When your house is afire, you need and want the most experienced to get it out as fast as possible and to preserve as much of it as possible.

District 1 right now needs McKenna in the school board seat. Johnson can apprentice himself to the process and learn how it’s done. There will be other elections in the future when he is more ready to properly serve the District 1 constituents.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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