All Politics is Local, but It Doesn’t Need to be Personal

(Originally Published by Howey Politics Indiana)

As a young Executive Director for the Libertarian Party of Indiana, I didn’t have an overwhelming amount of experience in grassroots politics. I had left a job as the producer of the Abdul in the Morning show on WXNT in 2008. My communication skills were the basis of my hiring at the LPIN, and knew that I had a deficit in the organizing aspect of politics. I visited every single bookstore in the Central Indiana area looking for books on grassroots politics.

The most impactful book was Tip O’Neil’s All Politics is Local, and Other Rules of the Game. The book is a collection of memories, advice, and illustrations from one of the 20th Century’s most skilled politicians.

The young Bostonian was in the last day of his first campaign for Congress when his former teacher, Elizabeth O’Brien, walked up and said, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you tomorrow even though you didn’t ask me.”

He was astonished. She was his neighbor, former teacher, and he spent years doing chores for her! He replied that he didn’t think he needed to. She countered with, “Tom, let me tell you something: People like to be asked.”

With one simple story, my view of politics changed from a series of news stories, polling data, impersonal formulaic strategies for victory, and issue-oriented politics in to a personal exercise. Politics is the people business. All of our strategies at the LPIN moving forward had to begin with the individual voter in mind, and we had to leave a good impression. In the absence of the money that enabled us to buy votes, our personal connections became paramount.

This strategy was fully realized by Rupert Boneham, the most personable candidate, and person, I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. After his campaign for Governor of Indiana began, he made made hundreds of campaign stops and met thousands of Hoosiers. Most had never heard of the Libertarian Party, but every single person that stood in line to meet him left with the basics of our principles and our party. Yes, I said lines. The average wait was 20 minutes to meet our candidate at a campaign stop. Few grassroots politicians ever see a line that long, and fewer leave the positive impression that Rupert left.

Rupert left that impression on his opponents as well. Every encounter with Mike Pence or John Gregg was warm and positive. It became clear to Pence and Gregg camps at the debates that Rupert was a sincere person with a genuine message. A true rapport developed between our team and each individual camp.

Our opponents respected us. And we respected them. And the friendly nature of our camp towards the sitting Governor would probably mean that Pence would answer Rupert’s call should he have an idea on policy. Rupert’s best work, Rupert’s Kids, is providing vocational education to an underserved population of our society: youth exiting the criminal justice system. Encouraging a return to vocational education was Rupert’s first platform plank. Several months later, it was adopted by the Pence campaign. True to his promise, the Governor has made it a priority in his administration.

Had we treated our political opponents with hostility, I believe our message would have had less influence on policy outcomes. Libertarians run to win, AND to have our ideas stolen.

I am sure that somewhere a Libertarian partisan is cursing me for exposing the horrifying fact that Rupert liked his opponents. Or that Andy Horning had the same relationship with Mourdock or Donnelly. And I say to my fellow party member: get over it.

Rupert, Gregg, and Pence had different ideas about how the state ought to function. Those ideas have serious consequences for our state. We lose the ability to discuss those ideas when we choose to treat politics as if it is another category on TMZ. It leads to bad government.

Politics is exciting when one has a hot piece of gossip to share. Somedays, the, “Where can this information be shared to effectively help my team” game was the bulk of my day. Gossip is natural. It is the people business after all.

This gossip game is the root cause of our broken political discourse. The gossip game breaks down civility. Fear of misrepresentation stops honest people from openly discussing their true opinions.

So I am going to try and do less of it. I am going to make the personal choice to only discuss the names of other politicos when I hear an idea that I can affirm or debate. If I disagree with it, I will make it about the idea and not the messenger.

If enough of those in the political industry choose to do the same, the political class can regain the trust and respect of their fellow citizens. Personally, I am going to do my best to emulate Rupert’s style, and to make the people business less personal.

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