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Tending to the Nitty-Gritty

By Sheila Kennedy on August 14, 2015 in Civic Blog

Our televisions and Internet feeds are rapidly filling with coverage of the 2016 Presidential race.

It’s hard to fault the media for its fascination with our quadrennial political spectacle, especially since the Republican field contains no fewer than seventeen candidates (at this count—who knows what other hats may be flung into the ring), many of whom are happily demonstrating that they are spectacularly unfit for public office.

The outcome of the national elections—not just for President, but also for the House and Senate—will have an enormous impact on economic, social and foreign policy, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of electing people who understand the complicated and delicate issues they will face.

What frequently gets lost in arguments over the direction our national government should take, however, is the importance of governing structures much closer to home, and the competence of the people we elect to deal with issues affecting our everyday lives.

A prominent example of the importance of local government—and its impact on civic equality—is the current outcry over incidents of police misconduct. The ubiquity of cameras has generated visual evidence of abuses that might previously have remained “under the radar,” and that evidence has sparked a national conversation about policing: how recruits are selected, the adequacy of training, and the role played by racial stereotypes, among other issues.

These incidents are not spread uniformly across the country; they are generally, although not always, evidence of poor local governing practices.

The importance of good policing to poorer communities is obvious. In cities where crime is poorly controlled, it is generally those neighborhoods that bear the brunt; residents of gated communities and wealthy subdivisions can and do employ additional security (further exacerbating the troubling gap between the haves and have-nots).

Beyond police and fire protection, local government policies and priorities have an immediate effect on those living within their jurisdictions. The ways in which city hall deals with the myriad everyday challenges of municipal life may seem boring until your uncollected garbage draws rats and other vermin, or the wheel of your car is bent in an unfilled pothole, or failure to remediate lead in older neighborhoods permanently diminishes the intellectual capacities of your children.

When we go to the polls to elect Mayors and City Councilors, a focus on their commitment to efficient and equitable delivery of essential public services is important. Quality of life issues are equally important. Public transportation may be a lifestyle choice for the executive who leaves his car in the garage and rides the bus to work, but it is a lifeline for the entry-level worker who can’t afford a car, and one reason that worker’s employer chose to locate where it did.

Far too many Americans ignore off-year elections. This is ironic, because our votes count more in state and local elections and because the policies and performance of local governments have a direct and immediate effect on our daily lives. They matter.

Sheila HeadshotSheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net and is republished here with the permission of the author.


Please join us in our journey to find registered non-voters with the “Why Should I Care” campaign.

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Whitney FieldsView all posts by Whitney Fields


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