Updated: Feb 6, 2021
I have loved politics ever since the first time I ran for office. It was a heated campaign for fourth grade class president. I ran on a platform of better lunchroom options, while my opponent promised extra recess time. After a grueling one week campaign cycle, we each retreated to our homerooms to wait for every vote to be counted. I should have known that my common sense approach never had a chance against her flashy neon pink campaign signs and empty recess promises. I stillI remember feeling that sickening gut punch of defeat when the results came in and I didn’t hear my name announced over the intercom. Luckily in fourth grade a landslide victory for the opposition could be healed with ice cream and that illustrious promise of extra play time.
It’s been a long time since I was a 10 year old student council candidate. I’ve volunteered or been a staffer for dozens of campaigns since then, but election night has never gotten any easier. When the polls close and the last ballot has been cast, no matter how confident I am in the polling, I still feel my stomach drop and my throat clamp down as we wait for the returns. This year Americans everywhere seemed to share that feeling on election night as we collectively held our breath, waiting to learn who would be sworn in as the President of the United States on January 20, 2021. Each day that we didn’t have an answer, my social media was filled with friends and family sharing their feelings of hopelessness, anger, and confusion at our divisive political system. So much distress over the election of one man every four years makes me heartsick for our community when there is so much work to be done here at home.
From choosing which roads get repaired to who will provide emergency ambulance services, every month important nonpartisan decisions are being made at the local level. The Pope County Quorum Court meets on the first Thursday of each month at 5:00 p.m., and is tasked with overseeing a budget of $26.7 million in tax revenue. Russellville City Council meets on the third Thursday of every month at 6:00 p.m., and oversees a $14.2 million annual budget. Even our children’s education is administered by elected officials at the local level. The seven member Russellville School District Board of Education manages over $54 million in tax revenue. The school board’s regular monthly meetings are held on the third Tuesday of each month at 7:00 p.m. In the coming weeks & months some of the decisions that will be made in these public meetings include: pay raises for county elected officials, the future of Hickey Pool, downtown utilities and water, the purchase or construction of a new county coroner facility, plans address the aging county jail complex, COVID-19 related restrictions, and the possible approval of a temporary casino site. Each of these issues can be influenced by a handful of engaged citizens.
Arkansans also happen to benefit from some of the best public disclosure laws in the country under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA). The AFOIA gives every Arkansas resident the right to observe public meetings and the right to obtain and inspect public records. Still our elected officials are being allowed to make policy decisions and spend millions of dollars in tax revenue with almost no input from the taxpayers themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way. We begin to combat polarization and hopelessness from the ground up when we engage on local issues.
All these years after that first fourth grade campaign the nervous energy is still there on election night, but winning and losing have started to feel basically the same. I know that no matter who is in office the real work will still be there waiting the next day and we will be ready to meet it. That gives me hope.
Civil rights icon Diane Nash once said, “Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders. There is a source of power in each of us that we don't realize until we take responsibility.” No fancy politicians are going to swoop in from Washington D.C. and save us from our dysfunctional politics. That responsibility rests with each of us individually and it starts at the local level.
A version of this column appeared in the December issue of ABOUT The River Valley Magazine