Karen Peterson

Peterson: Tenor of local candidates outshines presidential campaign

Staff Photographer

A recent vacation to the San Juan Islands was among my favorites, in part because I completely lost track of the news.

That’s a rarity for me. Editors are plugged in nearly around the clock, even when on vacation. It comes with the job.

Almost thankfully, however, cell and wi-fi connections were terrible on Orcas Island. And the only TV we saw was the occasional Olympics coverage.

A weeklong respite from the nasty, loud, lacking-in-substance rhetoric of campaign 2016 was a vacation in itself.

So count me crazy for coming back to work Monday and volunteering to sit down for an hour nearly every work day for the next six weeks with candidates running for office in the November election. The TNT Editorial Board is interviewing them in an effort to make better informed endorsements in 44 races at the county, state and national level.

The good news? The candidates we talked to last week were — to a person — knowledgeable and earnest. They offered different ideas and perspectives, but clearly understood and cared about the jurisdictions they would represent. By week’s end, my faith in the electoral process was on the mend.

This was our second endorsement go-round this year. Earlier, we interviewed candidates in 16 contested primary races. A couple of trends stood out then.

First, some races were unusually crowded. The state superintendent of public instruction race drew nine candidates, and the lieutenant governor race drew 11.

Also, it was the year of the anti-establishment candidate, a la Donald Trump on the right or Bernie Sanders on the left. They appeared in many races, railing against political parties and the status quo, purporting to represent “the people.” Independence from party strings can be an asset, but several of these candidates showed little knowledge of the positions they were seeking or the broad slate of issues they’d have to tackle.

On Monday, we moved on to our general election endorsement interviews, beginning with candidates for legislative offices. We met at 2 p.m., day after day, each time with a new pair of candidates facing one another in November.

By the end of the week, again, a couple of things stood out among these finalists for political office.

First was the impressive cast of younger people, some in only their 20s and 30s, who have chosen to run for office. They represented both sides of the aisle. They were smart and spoke passionately about problems in their communities and how to fix them.

If they are a peek at the leaders of the future, I’m looking forward to living in it. And if they don’t get elected this year, I hope they find another way to contribute. We need them.

Second was the respect that candidates showed for one another while sitting side by side, vying for our endorsement. They listened, were gracious in sharing their time, and even acknowledged that they agreed with their opponents on some topics.

More often, they offered different solutions to problems facing their communities or touted the merits of their own life experiences, but did so respectfully.

It’s not a requirement that we elect only nice politicians, but if they’ll at least listen to one another, we stand a better chance of getting things done on the County Council, in the Legislature or in Congress. If only this tenor of tough talk on the issues, but respect for the individuals, continues when the fliers hit our mailboxes and the robo-calls start ringing. We’ll see.

As our Editorial Board discusses which candidates to endorse, we are not looking to promote those from a particular party. Experience and connections count if we think they will benefit the district. So does an eye to and a plan for the future.

Ultimately, we are looking for people who will best represent their constituents and also show leadership in the elected body they hope to join.

Several months ago, I met with a local activist, hoping to better understand her point of view on an important community issue. She told me how much she disliked being lumped in with all activists. Some espoused beliefs or behaved in ways that she disagreed with, she said.

Fair enough.

Yet, later in the conversation, she said she believed all politicians are self-serving and on the take.

All politicians? All politicians, she said.

I pointed out she was lumping together politicians the way she said others were lumping together activists.

She held on. No politicians, in her opinion, were in it to serve the community good.

That seems to be a popular sentiment this year.

I just don’t see it that way.

Some elected officials are better than others, either by expertise, by manner or by motivation. But our system of government depends on people stepping up and seeking office. It’s an honorable thing, I believe, to be good at running a government body, even if you’re elected to it.

It’s easy for voters — me included — to lose our faith in candidates and lump them all together as self-serving.

I remain concerned about the rhetoric in this year’s elections, particularly in the presidential race.

But at this point, I’m looking forward to five more weeks of 2 p.m. meetings.