Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local.” He might not recognize the world today, in which politics has become increasingly nationalized, and media coverage has gone the same way. Political dialogue for more than four years has been dominated by pro-Trump and anti-Trump fixations. So, too, has news media coverage focused largely on the national, as local voices have been stilled. Between 700 and 1000 newspapers have gone out of business, many of their lives squeezed out by hedge funds and private equity firms. Advertising dollars, the life blood of local papers, have decamped to electronic platforms. Yet local news and local government are where decisions are made most directly affecting the quality of our lives. Who’s repairing our streets? What’s the School Committee doing to get kids back in school? Why does the Council want a property tax override again?
As a moderator for recent municipal candidate debates, I have been pleased by the level of activism in my home town despite the dramatic decline in local news coverage. The local TAB newspaper does the best it can, but it is no longer a distinctly local paper like the old Newton Graphic or Newton Times (where, full disclosure, I once worked). The TAB is dramatically under-sourced, relies on a single overworked writer and, were it not for the local cable news coverage of School Committee and City Council, we might know precious little of what’s going on beyond official (and often self-serving) press releases.
Even so, the lawn signs for Biden/Harris and Trump/Pence hadn’t even come down when signs on Newton lawns were going up for Tarik Lucas, John Oliver, Bryan Barash, and Maddy Ranalli. There’s a special election March 16th to fill two seats on the City Council, one vacated by an unexpected death and another vacated by a former Councilor just elected to Congress. The stakes are high in these races, ranging from how best to create affordable housing in this largely affluent city, improve inadequate infrastructure, pay for employee benefits and fund municipal debt, protect the environment, and so much more. These are all national issues that play out compellingly on the local scene. The need for informed civic engagement at the lowest rungs of the political ladder is essential both for candidates and voters.
These Newton candidates and David Micley, who has no lawn signs, come with different backgrounds, experience and policy positions, but they all come across as intelligent, committed individuals willing to do the hard work of running for and holding public office at the local level. They’re willing to give up nights and some weekends in often-tedious meetings, take phone calls at home during dinner, be accosted by constituents at the local pharmacy or hardware store because their streets need fixing or some developer is overbuilding on the lot next door.
Whether it’s the City Council of Keokuk, Iowa, Charleston SC or Flagstaff, Arizona, wherever we live, we owe these and other would-be public servants a promise to be engaged citizens. It’s not enough to read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or even the Boston Globe. We must attune to local issues, stay up as best we can on local news. We need to vote and appreciate the efforts of those willing to put themselves out there to serve their communities. It’s a basic civics lesson many of us were taught as teens and often forget as adults. We also need to make sure our schools are providing media literacy courses and civics education that are keys to a functioning democracy.