Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Letter from California-October 3, 2004

Imagine that you’re the owner of a company. It could be any kind of company, but just for kicks, we’ll imagine that it’s a company that makes sock puppets. In fact, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of google-eyed sock puppets, and business has grown so much that you need to hire a CEO. You want to make sure that the person you’re hiring has the experience, expertise and character to lead your puppet empire to greater and greater success. If you make the wrong choice, children all over the world will have to sit through story time with nothing to look at but the teacher’s bare hand folded over in an unfunny shape. It’s not a future that any parent wants for his child, but if you pick the wrong leader, the nightmare becomes real.
Only two candidates apply. You won’t have a chance to meet them, talk to them, or even see them. On the other puppet-covered hand, each one has written something on a piece of paper for you. You open up the first envelope and pull the sheet of paper out. In large blue letters, you read the word, “SUTTON.” You open the other envelope and on the paper, you read, “MACDOUGALD.” Ok, you’ve got 10 seconds to pick.
Of course, no one doing anything as serious as hiring the CEO of a sock puppet factory would do it this way. After all, you may think sock puppets are funny (or you may think they’re terrifying, and if so, I suggest either professional counseling or switching to decaf), but it’s still a serious job. Even if the job were a little less serious, as an unpaid standup comic for example, you’d still want a little more info than the person’s last name in giant letters.
I’ve noticed lately that at least one job generally does get filled this way, but as you’d imagine, it’s not something that most people have much interest or involvement in: local government. Before your eyes glaze over, let me assure you I have no intention of actually talking about local government. That’d be downright un-American. Some people disagree with me and think that everyone should stop wasting their time producing good and services, participating in a hobby, or relaxing at home and instead delve into the details of the street-widening project near the elementary school or the proposed sewer modernization project that’s proposed for 2008. My eyelids are getting a little heavy just writing about it.
Yet, once every couple of years, like some strange variety of flower, the yard signs begin to bloom in the September before an election year letting us know who’s running for State Assembly, judge and town council. Here in California, with more than 50 Congresspersons, plus a couple hundred more elected officials in Sacramento, plus city governments like Los Angeles with populations the size of some states, we get more than our fair share of campaign-by-yard-sign. The Presidential candidates get into the act too, sticking red, white and blue placards into the hydrangea beds, but at least we have other ways of knowing about them. They debate; they run commercials comparing each other to Hitler; they go on Oprah and share household tips; they get in hot air balloons and fly around the country throwing candy to anyone who waves at them. (That last thing is just a suggestion, but I do think it would work.) The two people running for President do everything but tie their left hands together and have a knife fight. That’s another suggestion I like, but my point is we do get a lot of chances to find out what they’re like as people and which set of great-sounding, impractical generalities they favor. It’s expensive and complicated, but it more or less works. Except in Florida.
With your local officials, though, elections all seem to come down to one simple thing: whose name did you see the most in other people’s yards. You’re standing in the voting booth, working your way toward the place on the ballot where you vote for President, looking down a long list of candidates that you’ve never heard of. Wait a second…Sutton, where have I heard that name? It says here his profession is “attorney,” so his mother is probably really proud of him. He might be one of those Yale Law School super-smart lawyers who fight to get the little guy enough money to buy shiny new SUVs and a very, very large screen TV. On the other hand, he could be more of a Hollywood Upstairs Law College type of lawyer who fights to get people shiny new SUVs and very, very large screen TVs while wearing much less expensive suits.
What about his opponent? MacDougald. I know that one too for some reason. His profession is listed as “Superhero.” Not bad, but is he more of a Batman-type of hero, where he’s really just a regular guy with some awesome gadgets and a black belt in Kung Fu? Or is he a full-on Superman-type Superhero who can melt things with his eyes and pick up buildings? That makes a difference.
But yard signs don’t provide enough space to explain if you’re a Batman or Superman type of hero. The main thing is that the candidate has gotten enough people to put up the signs so that when the voter gets into the voting booth, he or she has that vague feeling they know the candidate and that the rest of the names on the list are just a bunch of un-Super strangers.
So here’s a winning strategy if you’re thinking about getting into the high glamour world of local government: change your name to Superman. Then, go around asking people if they’d like to help get Superman elected by putting a sign in their yard. Of course, they’ll say yes. Who’d say “no” to Superman?
And when voters show up at the polls, they’ll say, as their eyes glance past the local elections, “Sutton, Johnson…never heard of them...Garcia, Liu, Scolinos…nada… MacDougald, Superman, Webster. Hey! I know Superman!”
You’ll win in a landslide.


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