The Problem With Elections

“You have the hair to be president, sir.”

—a staffer to Rod Blagojevich

For those who’ve forgotten Rod Blagojevich, let us refresh your memory. He was the former governor of Illinois who was sentenced to a 14 years in federal prison after being convicted of corruption and solicitation of bribery. He was caught trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat to the highest bidder.

For those who’ve forgotten what Blagojevich looked like, he did, indeed, have a spectacular head of hair. It was a veritable mane. And for those who think the staffer’s quote was so trivial and ludicrous as to be absurd, you couldn’t be more wrong.

A handsome, well-coiffed candidate will beat a homely, bald-headed man almost every time. It’s all part of that bizarre popularity contest-cum-traveling circus we call “politics.”

Counting minor positions (department shop steward, overtime chairman) and major ones (president of a raucous 700-member local, chief contract negotiator), I ran for union office approximately 20 times.

Because our union was so fiercely democratic, the president was allowed to serve only a one-year term. They made you run for re-election every year. The membership insisted on being able to dump you as soon as possible.

One could argue that even though labor union office seekers campaign just like “real” politicians, and mingle with the voters just like the men and women who seek state or national office, union politics bears little resemblance to “real” politics.

Or one could argue the opposite—that, even though the stakes are infinitely lower, running for elective union office is a microcosm of “real” politics. I side with the latter.

Not to boast, but I never lost an election. I ran for president nine times and won every time. Once I explain what went into winning those contests, you’ll understand why there’s nothing to boast about.

In some of those contests I ran unopposed; in others I ran against a “flakey” person who, presumably, threw his or her hat in the ring simply to get attention; and in others I narrowly beat a very qualified opponent in a contest that could’ve gone either way. Anyone who thinks luck and timing don’t enter into politics hasn’t been paying attention.

Over the years, I listed some of the reasons people voted for or against me. People either openly shared those reasons, or I was able to find out from third parties. We were a clannish group. A tribe. There were few secrets.

A woman old enough to be my mother said she planned to vote for me because she knew I’d been married for 20 years. She bluntly asked if I had ever been unfaithful to my wife. When I honestly answered that I hadn’t, she smiled knowingly and said, “I didn’t think so.”

This conversation was weird on so many levels. For one thing, I barely knew this woman, yet she drops this startlingly personal question on me. For another, what man is going to admit to being an adulterer? Especially one seeking political office.

A man said he voted for me because I drove an America-made car. In truth, we had two cars—one American, the other German. A woman voted against me because I was a “know-it-all.” A man voted against me because I was overweight, which, to him, revealed a lack of self-discipline.

A man voted against me because I was good friends with “Greg,” whom he loathed. A woman said she had voted for me because I had promised to lower union dues. She got it backwards. I had promised to raise dues. When I gingerly pointed out her error, she just stared at me.

A woman voted for me because she mistakenly thought I was Jewish. Another woman voted against me because she knew I was an atheist (“Burn in Hell!”).

A man vowed to vote for me because I was “level-headed,” not like those “assholes” who took the union out on strike three years earlier. Even though I saw his vote grow wings and fly away, I was forced to confess that not only was I on that bargaining committee, I led the charge to strike.

And then there were those people who claimed to have approved of what I’d done in office, but said “it was time for a change.” Do you object to what I did as president? No, they said. You did good. You were a good president. It’s just time for a change. Then why change? Why change if I did good? I just think we should give somebody else a chance, they replied.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. I personally know two bright, well-educated family friends who are Democrats and who voted for Trump. Why? Because they were sick of what they called “professional politicians” running the show.

It was time for a change, they said. Let’s put a non-politician in there, they said—a maverick, someone who doesn’t owe favors to anyone. I wonder how that worked out for them.

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