Democracy and Community

The Sangamon River these November days is flowing as clear as the results of my recent election campaign for Champaign County Clerk (I lost bigtime).

As many savvy readers know (hi, Mom!), I took time away from writing this Notes from the River column to run for County Clerk, an office that for a political scientist like me could have been a very nice fit indeed.

And while I lost the race, don’t cry for me, Mahomet. The truth is I never left you.

This of course was evidenced by my bright purple campaign ad that ran on the inside cover of the Citizen during much of the time I was gone. I’d like to think my “purple Hays” ad was somewhat less annoying than the onslaught of communiques you undoubtedly received from those other candidates.

Some may ask, having run, having put so much time and energy into campaigning, and lost: Do I have any regrets?

That’s like asking a surfer if he regrets not catching any waves after spending a day out on the ocean or an experienced fisherperson if he/she regrets having spent the day on the lake not having caught any fish.

Of course not. Because that’s what they do.

And what I do is step up for my community and for democracy wherever I see a gap that needs to be filled and where I think I may have what it takes to fill that gap.

When I first moved out here to the Sangamon Valley, I came largely because of the Sangamon River (well, the schools didn’t hurt either). And as I began to explore the beauty of the river, I sought to join the local “Friends of the Sangamon River” group.

But there wasn’t one. So I, along with a relatively few others, stepped up to fill that gap and the USRC was born. And the rest is (recent) history.

My first foray into politics (before moving out here) came after I had completed a study of local smokefree laws around the country for my work at the University. When I gave a presentation to our local public health district, I pointed out that this area was apparently ideally suited for a smokefree laws. Well, no-one was leading the charge in Champaign-Urbana, and so I soon become president of what became an organization that embarked on a 4 year campaign to make C-U smokefree.

And then after moving here and voting in the March 2008 primary election, I noted that there were no Democrats on our local primary ballot except for Obama, who was running against Hillary at the time. I asked the local Democratic Party chair about the situation, and soon I became the candidate, along with my buddy Eric Thorsland, for our local County Board District 1 seat (we both lost – dismally).

We also ran a slate of Democratic candidates for Newcomb Township offices in 2013 (where we live) and also lost dismally.

In this past election, Eric made a run for our Congressional District 15 (with the help of my wife Carol as campaign manager) and lost 75/25.

So why do we do these things?

Well, first of all we don’t fail at everything we’ve done. C-U Smokefree did adopt smokefree ordinances in Champaign and Urbana against strong initial opposition.

And the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy has been very successful in increasing peoples’ awareness and appreciation of the Sangamon River in our area.

When you win, its very rewarding, and like they say about the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Electorally, we are Dems in firmly red terra firma. And we know that. But we are committed to the contest. We are committed to the idea that election contests are at the heart of our American democracy. Contested elections make our elected officials accountable and actually make our elected officials elected.

Witness our two local reps, Senator Chapin Rose and Representative Bill Mitchell, neither of which bothered to campaign at all this past season since neither had a Democratic challenger. They couldn’t even be bothered to participate in a Mahomet Candidate Forum hosted by our Chamber of Commerce despite the fact that they were both up for re-election. But with no Democratic challenger, why bother with a troublesome thing like an election? And of course both won with – viola! – 100% of the vote. That’s democracy? In my opinion, no-one should ever be elected with 100% of the vote, but I can only run for so many offices at once.

And the Candidate Forum? It was cancelled because only one candidate – yours truly – had agreed to show up.

And this brings me to the point of this particular column.

We’ll get back to the Sangamon next time, but in this column I would like to invite and encourage everyone out there to step up for our community. Wherever you see a need, wherever you think your unique talents have something to contribute, step up, step in. You’ll be glad you did.

We tend to be a fairly engaged community, but still local opportunities abound. And I would like to make a plug for stepping up to be a candidate for office. It is a very rewarding experience even if you don’t actually win! It’s a great way to get to know your community and its people.

Village Board elections and School Board elections are coming up in the Spring and the signature gathering period for filing for these offices is right now! Don’t be surprised if you see candidates knocking on your doors to sign election petitions to get their names on the ballot. And you can be the candidate, too! Signature requirements are surprisingly small.

And in the fall of 2015, the process for state and federal and some county-wide candidates to get on the ballot begins again! Sign up! Sign on!

And of course, we here at the USRC are always looking for a few good members to step up in leadership positions.

So we’ll get back to the river next time.

In the meantime, I had fun, but now it’s good to be back. And don’t be surprised if I’m back on some future ballot someday. Just to make contested elections contested.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, November 20, 2014

Comments are closed.