There are any number of lessons to take away from last week's elections to the board of directors of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. Let's focus on one that might otherwise be missed, so that future candidates for offices of all sorts can take note: Owning a business doesn't automatically make you the most qualified possible candidate. So if you want to get elected, stop pretending that it does.
This is a refrain one often hears in political campaigns, or in criticism of duly elected public representatives. Candidate or Councilman X, it is said, has never owned a business. Therefore, how can he possibly grapple with a city budget? How can he sympathize with the plight of the poor business owner? The inevitable conclusion either goes unstated or is whispered very lowly: What right does he have?
When prominent Eureka architect John Ash entered the race for the the Harbor District's Fourth Division seat, it was natural to consider him the easy front-runner. Here was a person who had the personal resume and the political stance to square the circle -- an accomplished member of the business community who took the position that the district, currently screaming toward bankruptcy, had better not hang all its hopes and dreams on the mythical return of the railroad. In the meantime, he said, there were probably more productive things that could happen with the railroad right-of-way. The district could help those things to happen.
This utterly sensible position is still mostly unspeakable in the larger Eureka business community, and so it was to be hoped that Ash had the juice to coax skeptics out of the closet and unite them with the trail development advocates -- the business community's natural allies, if the truth were to be told. A recipe for success.
Then came the candidates' debates. The Humboldt Bay Stewards sponsored the first major one at the Humboldt Area Foundation, and it was broadcast on KHSU. The conversation turned to the topic of economic development and the candidates' respective abilities to achieve it. And the moment Ash opened his mouth to speak, one could sense instantly that his candidacy was headed south but fast. Alone among the candidates, he said, he was the one who had created jobs. Therefore, he was the natural economic development candidate, it seemed. He had created jobs. (Ash was also fond of repeating, almost as a sort of mantra, that he "thought like an Architect." Literally, you could hear the capital "A." No one knew what it meant, exactly, except that he seemed to be saying that his brain didn't work like a normal human being's. )
Considered from a purely political point of view, there's at least a couple of things about this picture of the all-powerful job creator that are ill-advised. If you are saying, as Ash certainly seemed to be, that job creation is or should be the ultimate trump card in any political campaign, then you are saying that your employees -- the people who merely work at those jobs -- are unfit to participate in the great affairs of state. Beside being patently false, the notion is also politically suicidal. Because it turns out that most of the electorate work at jobs, and they really don't worship their job creator as much as you might suppose. The way they see it -- and not incorrectly, of course -- they created you, too.
Come the day, a laid-off mill worker and union man named Richard Marks won the election quite handily. He wasn't nearly as anti-railroad or pro-trail as Ash -- he had plenty of very vague statements of support of both rail and trail -- but he campaigned harder and humbler, and in the end people endorsed him as the likelier person to successfully promote economic development, the major plank in his platform. Everyone expects him to work hard and humbly to work toward this goal.
So take note, future candidates. No one's saying that business ownership isn't a nice and worthwhile thing to tick off on your candidate's statement. It's good experience -- it's just that it isn't the only experience. If you're going to prance around like coked-out Hollywood starlets demanding a table in a fully booked restaurant, you will likely be punished for it. Nurse your bruised ego in private. It's hard to be the king.