Who will serve and who will eat? A culture of public accountability for power can’t begin and end on Election Day

Check out Leonard Cohen’s poem/song “Democracy.” It should be a mandatory listening on Election Day. It’s a spectacular burst of clear-eyed American patriotism and humanity from one of our greatest creative Americans — and a great American Jew. Sadly, that comes with renewed and deadly relevance these days.

I love the entire song, but especially the passage below. It contains the best, most concise definition of politics that I have ever heard — contextualized within the holiness, grace, sorrow, and furtive human confrontation that define politics emotionally.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where the races meet

From the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen

to determine who will serve and who will eat.

From the wells of disappointment where the women kneel to pray

for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

I wish we could rename “politics” as “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.” That’s what it is. Those are the stakes. Always. It’s the distribution of power — the state-sanctioned capacity to help or harm — by democratic or other means.

Politics cares about you — whether or not you care about it

I hear people sometimes say, “I don’t care about politics.” And that’s fine. Your choice. But I assure you that politics does not feel the same way. It cares about you. It will find you; and it will determine, in large degree, your relative share of eating and serving. Power is always working on us. It never, ever stops. The ballot box is only one tiny part of it. But it’s the only part where we share power, as individuals, on roughly equal terms. But power resents even that. And equality of voting feels the endless gravity of power pulling on it.

I’m a politician and a public person for whom the homicidal bitchin’ has worked pretty well over the last 400 years. I am not ashamed of my many inheritances. But I think they do impose an obligation on me, as a politician and public person: make the homicidal bitchin’ a little less homicidal. Equalize, to reasonable extent, the burdens of serving and the joys of eating.

I don’t believe I can do that effectively without pointing out who is eating and who is serving. And why. To what end — and for who’s benefit. And so I do. I make no apologies for looking at power and asking those questions. I expect people to look at me and ask the same.

Today, as you exercise your vote around public education, ask yourself: when you look at students and teachers on one side and Kelli Stargel and Rick Scott and the powerful of Tallahassee on the other, who has eaten and who has served? Apply that same question to the School Board for the last 16 years. I think it will answer itself.

And then ask yourself, what do you plan to do about it?

Win or lose, political competition and attention creates its own rewards

I’m about to head out to another polling place to stump yet again for change — particularly the change that Sarah Fortney, Jennifer Sabin, Bob Doyel, and Andrew Gillum will bring to power that has been unaccountable to basically anyone who serves rather than eats.

Politically, our political leadership in this state and county have been all about the eating for a generation. And we’ve let them indulge without much attention. That’s starting to change. We’re building culture of public accountability for how our leaders use power. And here are a few key thoughts in no particular order.

You can’t win if you’re afraid to lose

The accountability effort did not begin today. It won’t end today, no matter the outcome. We could very well wake up tomorrow disappointed. The Doyel/Stargel race is a particular challenge. We’re fighting years of ingrained political habit and inertia. Overcoming it requires extraordinary energy. And there are no guarantees — except this: you won’t win if you don’t compete. Bob Doyel stepped into the breach to compete and serve. I’m eternally grateful to him. I have no prediction for the outcome other than I think it’s going to be very close. And I guarantee you we win the people paying close attention, who vote on something other than straight party affiliation.

A watched Kelli did not boil

Because Bob stepped up — and because we started watching and documenting what Kelli has done and been doing to hurt students and teachers — Kelli was at her most docile as a force for harm in the last year.

Indeed, within the horrible overall state treatment of education, Polk actually did relatively less bad in funding. The state rolled over on our “turnaround plan.” We got a big grant for Kathleen High. If you think that would have happened without Kelli fearing for her political existence, ask yourself why it didn’t happened in all the years that came before. Ask yourself why we’ve fallen to 64th out of 67 counties in funding over time. Competition, confrontation, and pressure work.

Understand this, Kelli, and everyone else: that will not stop with this election.

It will be harder for Kelli to retaliate

I think it will also make it harder for Kelli to retaliate against teachers and kids through funding and punitive accountability measures, should she pull this out. If Bob wins, we won’t have to worry about that at all, which is something voters should consider.

If you doubt me on this retaliation thing, all you have to do is go look at the anger of Kelli’s top aide, Chad Davis. He’s doing whatever he can to discredit his fellow Republicans for having the nerve to think differently than he does. And he spends a lot of time on Facebook complaining that I endorse candidates and point out Kelli’s record. It says something about democracy that it’s considered “radical” to say: This person is a bad a senator because of this record. And I think these school board candidates would do the best jobs. 

Competitive politics clarifies choices for voters

And finally, we’ve seen how political competition — and the fear of losing — can clarify one’s positions and alliances so voters understand what and who they’re choosing.

16-year-incumbent Board Member Key Fields has chosen to align herself closely with all the Tallahassee politicians who have so tormented Polk County teachers over the years. And for good measure, she’s happily accepted the money and help of for-profit charter scammers. That’s certainly her right.

But I’m so grateful to Jennifer Sabin, whose smart, tough, uncynical campaign forced Kay to make a choice that reveals quite a bit about what she represents on the board. I think it has surprised a number of people. And given them a clear choice.

And that, I think, is the core of the movement we’re building, person-by-person. We’re becoming an engaged citizenry around education in this county. Engagement forces power to answer and reveal itself, so we can choose intelligently.

That’s what Democracy, at its best, does. If that makes us radical, call us radical. I think it makes us patriots.