Every fall or early winter, late in the year, it begins to cool in Southern California, and eventually it rains. Most years it’s been so dry that even the slightest bit of rain becomes an epic event. What I always notice about the first “big” rain (sometimes it is no more than a spit, and that’s all we get for the season) is that immediately after, the subterranean termites come out in a swarm.
Subterranean termites are these little termites that are white and translucent. They don’t do damage like the termites that rot your attic; but they are annoying nevertheless. What I always notice is that there are just so many of them. One day you’ll be enjoying the first rain of the season, and the next you can’t even look outside without seeing clouds of them in swarms, just flying around.
Flying for the sake of flying. Existing for the sake of existing.
One year, so many of them came up from underground that they also died in droves. They got stuck in window sills, smashed over the front of my black SUV so that it looked grayish white from a distance, and the ground was covered in their translucent wings so you heard a crunch and a squish, turning the wings into a translucent goo stuck on the bottom of your shoes. It was a sight of horror, one forgotten as quickly as they resurface until the next first rain of the season.
People in politics, in every fashion, are like those subterranean termites. They come out only at certain moments of the year. They fly around in swarms, and infest every open space they can. Leaving behind trails of translucent, gooey wings, and the scent of infestation, politicos (from politicians and electeds, to commentators, bloggers, and volunteers) are like annoying gnats on the ass of America. Few have any redeeming qualities, and they appear to exist for no reason but for the sake of themselves.
Flying for the sake of flying. Existing for the sake of existing. The subterranean termites come to the surface.
The city council in my city is perhaps synonymous with any other governing body in America: they are clueless, do very little, and understand even less.
Our city council is pretty typically made up of any handful of your garden variety locals. There is usually at least one self-professed businessman, whose business is a bit nebulous and sounds more like a Ponzi scheme. A lawyer is always smattered in there somewhere, since lawyers notoriously possess the cut-throated narcissism required to be a politician, and because voters tend to assume that someone who knows how to manipulate the law will also be good at running the city.
Our city has a hard on for small business, as many cities do; so there are two businessmen and one businesswoman on our council presently. The men are like pieces of Wonderbread, sort of blending into the chamber walls with their weak-willed comments, and hangers-on status. One was up for re-election the same year that I ran, only in a different district, and he acted surprised when my daughter gave him a Halloween treat bag at the Farmer’s Market. “Even for an opponent?” – he asked, to which she had to remind him that he wasn’t even in the same district as me. The other, he seems harmless (and I don’t mean that in a good way). The woman – whom my youngest called “Grandma” whenever he saw her on the screen during a meeting – has been there since the 80s. She’s taken turns being mayor just shy of 10 times (8, to be precise); and, as with the men, most of us remain unclear what business she’s actually in besides grifting the taxpayer dollar.
There are also the occasional politicos that come and go on the council. These are the people that parrot party lines, like “Black lives matter,” and “Vote Blue no matter who.” Of course neither of those phrases – in the typical election year – would even remotely be tolerated in this community; and yet somehow, some way, one of them managed to get on the council. She’s up for re-election this year, and if I’m reading the pulse of the city right now, she will be a one hit wonder in terms on the dais. The shocking part about her is that in a pandemic, as a nurse, I cannot think or find evidence of a single thing she’s actually done for the public health aspect of it. Even today, into the third year of this collective nightmare we are all living through, I watched recently a video of a council meeting in which she was wearing a loose-fitting, inappropriately layered, mask at the meeting. A nurse. A person who is supposed to know things like ‘how to wear a mask,’ and ‘what type of a mask to wear.’ Someone who was touted as exactly who we wanted to be there during the pandemic, she effectively did nothing for public health education, vaccination or testing efforts, and everything in between.
I believe – and this is just my own personal belief – that this comes more from the cronyism that is pervasive to our community, and as it turns out in the bigger political picture. Hand picked successors are everywhere. When a council member either terms out or retires, there is always someone that has a familiar name and face that’s been waiting in the wings to pick up the position. This can be done traditionally, with an actual vote of the people (that comes from hefty funding and a lot of local name recognition); or – more often – when someone leaves in the middle of the term, and the council or board or whatever convinces the public that it is more financially responsible to shun the voices of voters, and let the all-knowing remaining electeds select their new colleague.
My community has no shortage of either. Decades ago, one of the area’s Congressmen died suddenly and tragically, and in the special election his wife ran for and won the seat. The funny part of that was that when you polled most of the voters in the district, they were both unaware it was her (and not the dead husband), and didn’t even have a grip on when regular elections were supposed to be held, and just voted when told to.
On the more local level, we had a county supervisor on the board for decades, before the county finally gave in to the will of the voters and instituted term limits; and someone totally and completely ideologically opposed – though sharing the last name – got enough money from local oil and natural gas companies to plaster enough name recognition pieces around the community that she was elected in a landslide. This county representative – now on a re-election – has no more than bananas for brains, and will blow whichever way her biggest donors sway her (I can only assume the air between her ears helps with the flight). Often she harms the community with her total cluelessness, and subsequent harmful (at times dangerous) policies.
Most people in the community, though, still think they’re voting for the last lady.
On the flip side are the institutional cronies that are in just enough local groups, and have been around the political scene long enough, to simply step onto the stage the moment an opportunity presents itself for them to do so. Often times, it is so glaring when it happens you can’t help but be insulted that these people, this pack of cronies deciding everything from what roads are repaved, to which books our children in the public schools learn from, think we are both blind and dumb.
Perhaps, since we go along with it, we are.
In the last couple of years, the real offenders were the ones who knew they wouldn’t serve their term. One school board member had already contracted a move, but notified the public only after she was re-elected. This allowed the school board to handpick her successor, again after reminding the public that this was the fiscally responsible thing to do. Nothing gets your average community member like the idea that their tax dollars are being wasted, even if it comes at the expense of the authoritarianism. Make no mistake about it – handpicking successors is exactly that.
Another school board member in recent years died of a terminal cancer she knew she had and kept secret through her re-election; again she was replaced by installment. Two city council members that same year met the same exalted status locally, when seats opened only after other council members won higher office.
Of course we could have municipal laws that prohibit a candidate from running for office while holding another that would require them to resign, leaving the path open for this kind of malfeasance at schools boards and city halls all over the country. This would at least eliminate some. We could also end the ability for installment, and require special elections under all circumstances. But this brand of local authoritarianism is kind of what the whole game is about: making sure that only the people in office can decide who else is there with them.
All the Parts in the Machine
What makes all of this possible – at every level (water board, city council, county supervisor, state legislature, Congress, and so on) are the insiders. Paradoxically, this is a group of people that believe they are inside and influencing decisions, when the reality is they exert about as much weight as that of their pinkie fingers. Not much.
Sure, political influencers and some employees play a part, and can make or break a candidate or an elected official with their own actions or part in the dance. Like the city clerk who handles the elections – she could simply not return the phone call of a candidate until the time has passed for the candidate to file, and that’s about that. In the year of my own election, a man that ran for mayor in a neighboring city became victim of the malicious incompetence of the county clerk, who just happened to “accidentally” leave the man’s name and candidate information out of the election handbook mailed to all voters.
Beyond all these tertiary elected and appointed subterranean termites, there is also the mega-bureaucracy at the city and county levels, who portray and highlight those elected to office with their own particular brand of incompetence. If I am constantly having a problem dealing with the people in the property tax office at the county, it’s unlikely I will continue to vote for the incumbent on the county supervisorial board that is supposedly meant to oversee these clowns. Right? The same could go for almost any department the average citizen encounters, or so you would think.
Except when everyone is incompetent, including their replacements, what else can we come to expect over the years? Now, in 21st century suburban America, this standard of incompetence is matched only by the amount of gaslighting done in the public view. Community members accept this low standard of public service thanks to messaging and social media posts that have glossed over an otherwise abysmal electoral track record.
This was especially highlighted in the pandemic, when the inner-workings of the local government showed itself to the public to be inefficient, idiotic, and – in this case – deadly. But at the same time, they messaged the hell out of the story with social media posts and pretty pictures, and now the collective perception of how things have been handled is divided between those that watched from the protection of their homes and Internet, and those that suffered the greatest hardships.
Even our public health is made up of installed puppets, bureaucratic cronies with interests beyond their scope and practice. In the earliest days, our county took the strategy of protecting businesses at all costs. Those costs were, naturally, human lives – mostly of the elderly, low wage workers, illegal immigrants and guest workers, and members of multigenerational, low income homes. Still, the vast majority of CAREs funding the county received went to business grants, and to cities which then distributed further business grants. Very little went to public health (beyond testing, which they rapidly phased out the first chance they could). To make matters worse, the public health professionals made recommendations and guidance at the pace of snails, not wanting to hurt small business through this difficult time. As community member fatalities began to stack up, our public health director ignored the call by the public to publish what businesses had experienced employee outbreaks as well. They do it for other public health violations, but an outbreak of COVID among employees was seen to them as too politically controversial, and would harm local business. The list of these, and other, transgressions over the years of the pandemic has stacked up, rivaled only by the list of people that have died of the disease and their gross negligence. But again, the messaging is at peak gaslit, and the public has been profoundly removed from the gross negligence that has gone on.
This raises a very serious issue in American politics: what the general public doesn’t always seem to realize when they vote is that they aren’t just voting for the person or identity of the candidate, themselves, but for everyone they bring with them.
This extends beyond just who they install when a seat on their own council opens. With the president, it’s judges and administration officials. With counties, it’s everyone running the show – from your jails to your elections to your child support services. In cities, it’s the manager and the city planner. You have to ask yourself, in a city like mine, why the council hasn’t been able to find residents of our actual city to hire as city managers and planners; or why when a once in a lifetime pandemic hits, there’s no one of all the people working at city hall capable of being moved into a position to better coordinate a more well-rounded local response to save lives.
All of these people are a part of the same whole: flying for the sake of flying. Existing for the sake of existing. In essence, accomplishing and contributing very little to society as a whole.
Finally, you have all the rest of the swarm that can be seen everywhere. Like the subterranean termites, they gaggle into groups, serving only themselves.
They are the local media, who cow tow to local elected officials because it is local governments that fund their struggling newspapers.
They are the special interest groups, that average people believe only exist in the highest levels of government, when in reality they exist at all levels and are most insidious in their influence at the bottom.
They are the two bit activist groups, who have some nebulous and general cause that is used as an excuse to get together, drink wine, and gossip.
One of our city council members has a somewhat influential mother in one of these groups. A gaggle of old women and one, gay man, they get together multiple times per week to gossip about everything going on in the world that pisses them off, write checks to personalities they like, and get sauced on a local Chardonnay in the process. On one occasion they invited me and the other woman running in the city (in the other district) – a pink-haired Democratic activist that talked down to me, and routinely interrupted to ramble into oblivion on topics no one could understand. The event was 80% her talking, 19% the group complaining about Trump, and I was given about 2 minutes to state my name.
Most malignant are the local political groups, whom are usually more cliquish than they are substantive in their activism. Like a cancerous sore on the body politic locally, these groups in my community are why the leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Caucus (also known as the D-Triple-C) once told me at a union junket in Sacramento that because of the toxicity that is pervasive to these local political groups in this district, the caucus typically considered it a political black hole.
Especially in my own experience, with the Democratic groups, they are the grassroots embodiment of the party at large: overpromising and underdelivering. For our own election, the local Democrats sent emails upon emails to candidates promising volunteers, phone banking, mailers, and the like. In the end, we got a couple hundred text messages sent, and a stack of door hangers with a long list of names on it (mine was towards the bottom). No manpower to distribute them except the Young Democrats who gave us a few hours one Saturday. And, of course, that couple hundred bucks from just one of their many groups.
Of course with social media, the groups expanded into things like political mom groups, and everything that comes with them. If Facebook Mom Groups are the state of nature, my own experience with them has been quite Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. The political moms groups of course divide into the ideological camps, and I managed to piss off both of them.
For the conservative moms of the community, it was quite obvious. Most of them believed I had that conspiratorial “agenda,” of which they themselves could not even articulate. On social media they would claim they saw me being “nasty” to fellow moms, and contemptuous of our community members. None of this was true, and when asked for the proof they could not produce it. That started the next conspiracy, that I had spent years of my life gleaning my presence on the Internet, something any mom of three knows I have absolutely no time for. A lot of them were hyper-religious and took offense to my positions on public health as well (it remains to be seen how wearing a mask has anything to do with Jesus).
Naturally, the defund the police rumor, was at the front of their sentiment against me. In the end there was going to be no winning them over for this reason. True or not, they had heard too much.
The Democratic moms, though – them I did not see coming. Considering myself a very issue-based voter, organizer, and politician (if I even called myself the latter), there are a lot of things that I wasn’t particularly in agreement on with the Democrats. Perhaps that was a part of the problem, but if I understand it more clearly now, it was my own identity and demeanor that was a problem to some of them. For some in particular, that I ran in the first place.
I’m not an insider to them. For over a decade, I didn’t go to local Party events, I didn’t attend the rallies or the fundraisers or the Democratic Labor Day picnics. I stopped being on the inside of all of those things years ago, so to resurface today was jarring, I can only assume, to many of them. Especially when so many were new.
I probably didn’t help myself with occasional gaffes stating the obvious. Comments like “it’s so nice to see new faces!” are not welcome by people that consider themselves establishment figures in that particular community (whether it’s rooted in reality, or not).
I also didn’t tone down speaking up about things I saw that I believed were wrong. When the Democratic moms Facebook group decided to host an online candidate meet and greet for a man running for the community college district school board, and a mom running herself asked to be given the courtesy of the same opportunity, she was ignored. I spoke up.
When they defended people going out and breaking their COVID quarantine, including – many of them including many elected officials that should have been setting an example, I spoke up.
When they left several endorsed candidates off their list of locals that had been endorsed by the Democratic Party, I spoke up.
When my kids were followed around at the public park by supporters of my opponent, and filled cups from McDonald’s were thrown at my front door, and one of the organizers of the group said we should all forgive my opponent for staying silent on this issue “because he’s a nice man,” I spoke up.
Later, I learned, that the speaking up, and running for city council to begin with, was what I did wrong in that group. In reality, it was what I did wrong in front of all of them. It made the community (the moms, the conservatives, the cogs in the bureaucracy machine) feel threatened. It was where Blue MAGA and Red MAGA found a common enemy.
My Opponent the Toad
My opponent was as bland as water, and as in-actionable as a toad.
Remember the old story about the two toads on a log? There are two toads on a log and one decides to jump. How many toads are still on the log? Two. Toads think about doing things, but rarely have the energy, drive, or will to actually do them. This sums up my opponent, and everyone that surrounded him for that matter, in a nutshell.
To make matters worse, he looked like one too.
Being fair, I only met him in person on one occasion. It was at a carefully curated debate-style event for the senior community in our district. I call it “carefully curated” because it was crafted so as to protect him as much as possible. At the time, I had no idea I was walking into a room full of his supporters running the event; finding out later only after reading over his campaign contribution list, and recognizing all of their names. And to be clear: this was a cohort of toads, obsequious to their leader, and mostly condescending towards me.
The queen toad – his wife – accompanied him and upon walking in, she talked to me like I was one of her gal pals at Bunko. “Oh, you’ll get used to these events,” was the first thing she belched at me, while clutching her handbag and evidencing for me that she clearly had not read my bio, nor had even the slightest inkling that I – a young woman in her late 30s – could have possibly been to any of these events before in her life (I’ve been to plenty).
The moderator. The cameraman. The producer. All toads, all with that same leathery and blotchy, reptilian skin; at least a few with a bullfrog’s neck goiter.
Through out the entire campaign, this toad man – the token lawyer on the city council – painted me not just as a radical liberal, but as an idiot. In certain crowds on Zoom events and candidate forums, he would answer questions by first stating that I didn’t know what I was talking about – this was why he should be re-elected. When he wasn’t running on this, he was doing so on his totally unfounded defund the police claims. He never actually campaigned on what he would do with four more years. He simply highlighted that he wasn’t me. (And it worked.)
Of course if he had highlighted what he had done with four years in office, he would have had nothing to talk about. Besides contributing to hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer waste by getting the city sued several times, this supposed-lawyer didn’t have much else to account for. The material conditions of residents were no better (arguably worse), the city was bleeding jobs even before the pandemic as well. I can’t blame this toad of a man for making me his solo talking point. If I were as much of a lame duck, I would have done the same.
Of course I always managed to overcome his incessant and condescending bullfrog noises – his gurgles and belches, that said less in substance than I even thought was possible of someone speaking words as fully formed sentences. After all his man-spraining and treating everyone like a village of idiots, I kept my cool, stated facts, and always ended events with more supporters than I came in with. Yet either a fault of the pandemic, or more just the way things are in local politics, the general public was by and large not present for these candidate forums and face-to-face (or Zoom-to-Zoom) events. There were 10, maybe 20, at each. Add all the candidates from the combined events, and you had an online total of maybe 40. Not enough to sway the vote, because in the end what it came down to was who had the most money.
This was when I simply got outspent.