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Political Leadership Lessons from CA’s Steven Poizner

It’s said that when people fear their Government it’s a bad thing but when Government fears the people it’s a good thing. I agree with the first half of that statement. I’m not so sure about the second half. Government should fear what happens if they don’t serve the People. But far too often Government, or more accurately the politicians in Government, so “fear” the people that they aren’t straightforward with them. Not out of concern for the People, but from selfish concern for themselves.

The Governor’s race in California can help illustrate this. Last November, 3 Republicans and 8 Democrats were being vetted for the job. Not having quashed speculation they were running, and looking to improve their standings, one would think candidates would be eager to tell their story to Californians to determine who best represents them. Isn’t that what politicians do?

Not if you’re Steven Poizner. Poizner is California’s Insurance Commissioner and a Silicon Valley entrepeneur who made a fortune inventing a GPS chip for cell phones so 911 dispatchers and others with whom you want to communicate can tell exactly where you are. Too bad Poizner won’t turn his own political phone on so we can locate him. He appears uninterested in being located at all.

Consider that the day before last year’s elections, in November of ’08, The Sacramento Bee, arguably one of the most influential papers in California, asked the 11 likely candidates for Governor about their positions on a wide range of issues then facing voters. Perhaps it wasn’t a timely piece. After all, none of them were on the ballot the next day. On the other hand, it was very relevant as the ’08 election cycle was over and the only thing keeping the ’10 cycle from kicking off was the passage of 24 hours. Certainly it was fair in that a good measure of how a candidate will serve tomorrow is to find out how he feels about things today.

But when asked about the issues, including Prop 8′s contentious gay marriage question, Poizner’s campaign responded, “The next time voters have to make a decision on Steve Poizner is almost 20 months away and there’s plenty of time for voters to get to know him and to get to know his views on the issues.” Hellooo … that’s exactly what the article was intended to do … give you a jump start on that 20 month process! What sort of a response is that? This was a newspaper interview. Poizner had plenty of time to submit a clear, concise response which accurately represented his views. He chose instead to acknowledge it was important for voters to know where he stands and to refuse to provide that information.

How is this not politically “taking the 5th” and refusing to answer on the grounds his own words might incriminate him? A reasonable person might conclude Poizner couldn’t answer because voters hadn’t yet made their views clear and so he didn’t know what to tell them. A thoughtful person might conclude he didn’t respond because there was no definitive core to Steven Poizner. He needed 24 more hours to figure out where the public was headed so he could try and run to the head of the crowd as opposed to asking the crowd to follow him.

If that sounds harsh, let’s fast forward just 90 days to a Hugh Hewitt interview in February of ’09. There, in a far more “seat of the pants” environment, Poizner plainly and openly says “I do think that marriage should be defined between a man and a woman. I’m fine with domestic partnerships and all. That’s just fine. That’s government staying out of people’s private lives. But marriage is a sacred thing, and the voters of the state of California have voted now not once but twice to define marriage between a man and a woman.”

That’s the sort of statement Californians deserved to hear when they had only voted once to define marriage. With such a definitive statement in February of ’09, why didn’t Mr. Poizner provide something similar in November of ’08? Might it be that in November of ’08 Mr. Poizner was unsure if Californians still felt that way and thus was unwilling to go on record with a position? Might it be he “feared” the People in precisely the wrong way? Might it be Poizner is a “Me, too!” politician, waiting for the people to gather before revealing his views are perfectly in line with the majority? As opposed to a “This is my view on the matter!” leader who makes clear his position and works to rally the crowd around his banner?

It’s 2009 and it’s time for politicians to fear, not what their honesty will produce, but what their dissembling and their dishonesty will produce. The majority of us have access to computers and Google. These sorts of things are not at all hard to find. It’s increasingly hard for politicians to get away with blatant pandering and empty posturing. Today as never before, we need leaders and statesmen; candidates unafraid to tell us what they think and what they plan to do. Candidates unafraid of their views and unafraid of what will happen if they make those views public. Candidates willing to let us decide if they represent us as they are as opposed to morphing into what they think best represents us. One politician respects the People and properly fears them for who they are. The other deceives the People out of fear of what they might do.

As Poizner points out, we have months to go and people have plenty of time to get to know the candidate. For some of us, however, we may have already found out all we need to know.

Blue Collar Muse

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