Winner Take All or Service to Others in Talbot County by David Montgomery

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On Saturday Army beat Navy, which was disappointing but had little to do with the meaning of the traditional game. I think its spirit was captured when the Chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy began his invocation “Some wonder why we pray over a football game. So I tell them in this game, every player on the field is willing to die for every person watching. And there is no greater love than to lay down your life for what is truly good.  So I pray for the players on this field … and all those others who lay down their lives daily in our defense.”

After that, Navy’s loss did not trouble me anywhere near as much as my realization of how rarely we find that willingness to make even the smallest sacrifice for the common good among those we count on to lead us. Every soldier, sailor, airman, marine, police officer or first responder mentioned by the chaplain knows that he or she may be called on to make that sacrifice as part of his or her profession.

The Game is not the only part of this season providing such a reminder. Last week Chanukah celebrated how Israel was freed from foreign rule by the self-sacrifice of the Maccabees.  The Advent season prepares us for the birth of One who would sacrifice His life for the salvation of the world.

Yet now we find politics at every level in the nation dedicated to advancing the interests of an individual or a group that has divided itself from the rest of society. Racists of any color want that which belongs to those of a different race, and socialists want that for which others worked. LGBTQ activists want their wishes to determine how the other 95% of the population can speak, work, use public spaces, and raise their children.  Atheists want to prevent Christians from public affirmations of their faith. Most elderly want government benefits that will be paid for by their children to many generations. Many oppose immigration reform because they believe they will get better jobs and pay if borders are closed.

In this age of big data, political parties have found ways to craft their messages in two ways: 1. to encourage self-identification into groups whose members share a fear of some common threat and 2. to present the other party as the source of the threat.  Creating bogeymen is not a new political strategy. What is new is the ability to sort voters by the threat they can be convinced to fear, and to keep them focused on those individual grievances to the extent that they do not realize their party also recruits groups with diametrically opposite agendas.

Once this happens, politics becomes a win or lose proposition, with neither motivation or process to work with the other side.  Thus each election becomes a winner take all contest, and the winner feels free to impose whatever policies and programs its winning makes possible.

This is not just a characterization of the behavior of Republicans and Democrats when they win majorities of a House of Congress or the Presidency.  We now see it polluting the political process and threatening the civility of Talbot County. Due to the oddities of a County Council election in which the top 5 vote-getters in the general election are seated, the three with the lowest vote totals have been enabled to form a triumvirate with the intention of running Talbot County their way.

The election was hotly contested. A Bipartisan Coalition explained its opposition to policies adopted by the majority of the previous County Council, and those whose policies it opposed responded with more traditional political tactics.  Even more disturbing than personal attacks and dirty tricks, supporters of the Council’s policies adopted the “us versus them” tactics of national politicians, trying to convince the long-term residents of the County whom they wanted to recruit that some wealthy, retired interlopers were trying to destroy their livelihoods.  

As an aside, they did not seem to care about the absurdity of these claims.  The Bipartisan Coalition was created because the previous Council majority seemed to be giving in to all sorts of interlopers. Resort owners from out of state who want to provide the loudest entertainment they can get away with. Absentee landlords who do not care how disruptive their tenants might be to neighbors. Wealthy developers who want a simple way to bypass zoning regulations and and previous planned development decisions.

Nevertheless, the risk that excessive regulation will deter development in Talbot County needs to be faced.  Many residents who were born here and have deep roots depend on building and construction to supplement their income as farmers or watermen, either directly as construction workers or indirectly in businesses that supply building trades.  Their interest in opportunities for themselves and their children is as important as preserving the natural amenities of the County.

Until the past four years, Talbot County seems to have managed a balance among these concerns that was more or less acceptable to all sides, based largely on a Planning Commission and planning process that voters trusted and the Council respected.  It was the disregard for that process by the previous Council President that led to the campaign to defeat her.

To reiterate what everyone knows, the Council President dropped from second in the primary to eight in the general election, the lowest of the serious contenders. But three of those who had been following her lead come in third, fourth and fifth.

Now we return to the notion of sacrifice for the good of others.  Those three now form a majority of the County Council and appear to be perpetuating the winner takes all approach to politics.  They have elected two of their number to be Council President and Vice-President, freezing out the two who beat all of them in the popular vote, Laura Price and Pete Lesher.  Soon the Council will decide whether to return Ms Price to her position on a state-wide board of county officials, where she has served for a number of years as an effective and respected advocate for Talbot County. In January it will select members for the Planning Commission and Short Term Rental Board.

There are always winners and losers in decisions about local zoning, sumptuary ordinances, and development. The common good requires both principles and balance in making such decision. Messrs. DeVilio, Callahan and Pack seem poised to make their supporters winners in every case and those who opposed them losers, no matter what the longer-term consequences.

Politicians do not need to work this way, and they will not if the community refuses to let itself be divided.  Although the winner-take-all strategy may give the winners short term benefits, it is not a successful strategy for either political careers and long-term investments.  For a politician, serving only those who provide finances and votes only works if those supporters are a stable majority. That clearly was not the case in Talbot County, since a few hundred more votes for Keasha Haythe would have put the current majority out of business.

Nor is it sensible for those investing in Talbot County to create a divisive political atmosphere, in which rules and regulations affecting their business are changed with every election. Our stable and civil politics as well as our bond rating are critical matters for investors seeking location.

This suggests that the current Council majority would do well to be more inclusive of Ms Price and Mr Lesher, choose qualified, objective and independent members for the Commissions, and negotiate in good faith among all 5 of the Council members before taking votes. Anything else is shortsighted, suitable only for Council members who do not expect to run again.

If the Council majority is not willing to make this small concession to the common good, then it is incumbent for businesses, developers and residents to do it for them. The County Council majority may make general rules, but it is hard to believe they do not have input from those whom they appear ready to reward for their support.

The best outcome would be for those who have supported Messrs. Pack, Callahan and Divilio to start meeting themselves with the various community organizations and individuals who made up the Bipartisan Coalition. It is certainly more work than calling up a politician who is in your pocket to tell them what you want. But it is the right thing to do for the common good of the county and for the riskiness of your investments.

Likewise, those who opposed Ms Williams could follow Nancy Pelosi’s lead, and spend the next four years mounting a campaign to “Resist” the new Council majority and to harass them with investigations and lawsuits with every concrete action.

Neither of these sides, who now look like the French and German armies on the eve of World War I, should have any difficulty identifying the counterparts with whom they need to work.  If constituents decide to make some sacrifices for each other, politicians will have to follow. This is the right season to start.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

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