Are we props or citizens?

Are we props or citizens?

March 2013
Joe Kriesberg

A few weeks ago, Boston Globe columnist, Joan Venochi, wrote an op-ed entitled “The Props for Patrick’s Wish List” in which she urged the Governor to “respect the public’s intelligence and stop using fellow citizens as props in a tired political play.”  She was referencing several public events that the Governor had held in recent days with various groups and constituencies that are supporting his call for increased revenue to support transportation and education investments. It was one of those columns that can really upset an otherwise quiet Sunday morning in my house.

I tweeted and I wrote a letter to the editor which was published the following Sunday. But her column still rankled.

Why did it get under my skin? I don't consider myself naïve about the nature of politics. There is much about which to be cynical and skeptical -- the influence of money, apathy, petty personal feuds, the lack of competitive races, the weakness of the Republican Party, back room deals and much more. Political theatre can be silly or worse and motives are not always pure. I have certainly voiced those views on many occasions both privately and publicly.

But of all the problems we face in our civic and political culture, I would not put citizen engagement on the list. We should be celebrating when citizens organize themselves to petition their government. We should be proud when we have a Governor who wants to engage citizens and work with them to achieve shared policy objectives. It is encouraging when the people most impacted by government programs are able to participate in the process – even if that participation is limited to showing up at a rally or press conference to lend their support. As Woody Allen famously put it, 80% of success is simply showing up. This is especially true in politics!

That is why, every year, MACDC brings people to the State House for our annual lobby day.  (This year’s event will be on May 1.)  Every year we hear from people who have come to the State House for the first time. These folks are inspired and awed by the fact that legislators actually listen to them in their meetings.  And they do listen. They may not agree, but I know they do listen. And often, they act on our behalf to pass important legislation like the Community Development Partnership Act or anti-foreclosure legislation, or funding for affordable housing. I take pride in creating an opportunity for people to experience the State House for the first time - or the 100th time for that matter.   Sure, some of it is theatre (Joan Vennochi is right about that!) But all of it is democracy and I don't think it is fair to dismiss the citizens who take the time to participate as mere props for elected officials. Indeed, when it comes to the need for new revenue it is more accurate to say that Governor Patrick is responding to citizen pressure than the other way around.

For me, the current debate about taxes and revenues is democracy in action. The Governor has put forward a thoughtful proposal. Legislators are engaging in vigorous debate. Citizens are making their voices heard, both pro and con.  My side might win the debate and we might lose it. Most likely the legislature will land somewhere in the middle. Either way, I’m proud to be participating in the process and grateful to live in a state where we make important public decisions in this manner.

Joan Vennochi may think that I’m a prop for the Governor. I consider myself to be a citizen.

Joe KriesbergState Policy