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NOTIONS: The perils and pitfalls of pulling the party lever

October 13, 2008

My sister-in-law is a deputy county prosecutor in Michigan. By all accounts, she's good at her job. But that may not matter.

You see, my sisterin-law's boss is up for re-election next month. And because his job is on the line, so is hers. So in addition to her day job, my sister-in-law has been working nights and weekends on the campaign.

My sister-in-law is passionate about putting away bad guys. She'd like to keep doing it. But it's not the bad guys who will wield the most dangerous weapon on Nov. 4.

It's you.

That weapon is the straight party lever. It's dangerous because it comes with an engraved invitation for ignorance and laziness. And that can cost lots of good public servants their jobs.

In this age of information overload and multi-layered government, it's difficult (if not impossible) to keep up with all the candidates on the ballot. Not having the time or interest to know or learn about all the wouldbe officeholders, too many voters rely on political parties to recruit a slate that's qualified and of a particular ideological bent.

But rarely are the top people all of one party. And rarely will a party's candidates march in lockstep (thank heavens).

Yet when voters rely on the party lever, the fates of governors, congressional representatives, state legislators, sheriffs, township trustees and, yes, county prosecutors, rest, in some measure, on the fate of candidates for higher office.

And that doesn't make one iota of sense.

Consider one example of the potential fallout: My sister-in-law's boss is a Republican. Last week, the head of his party's ticket, Sen. John McCain, decided to abandon his Michigan campaign. He pulled his ads from the state's airwaves. Pulled staff. Pulled the plug.

Given limited dollars and daunting opinion polls, that may be a smart strategy for McCain. But it's potentially devastating to down-ballot Republicans.

Last week, I asked my sister-in-law what she thought of McCain's decision. This being a family newspaper, I won't repeat what she said.

Until and unless we streamline the number of elected offices and/or abolish party levers (something the major parties would be loath to do), our only recourse is ticketsplitting. And ticket-splitting requires of citizens more time, more homework and more engagement in the democratic process.

I can't tell you the last time I voted a straight ticket. I'm not sure I ever have. And this year, my ticket-splitting will start with the top two spots on the ballot.

With our national and international economies in shambles, we've got what my grandmother used to call "a mell of a hess" on our hands.

In that environment, I want the brightest, best-educated, most innovative, top-of-the-Ivy League-class, editor-of-the-law-review, able-to-articulate-complex-issues-with-caution-and-nuance kind of leaders in charge of my state and federal governments.

After two straight presidential elections in which we've chosen the candidate we'd "rather have a beer with," I want all the brainpower, inspiration and vision we can get. As my friend Wendy said in a recent email, "Excuse me, but I do NOT want my vice president-or president-to relate to me! I want him/her to be far more intelligent than I am. I want our VP and president to be far more cerebral/intellectual than I am. I couldn't care less if our VP or president relates to my struggles with PTO, juggling kids' activities and housebreaking a dog. I want them to understand issues that are too complex for me: foreign affairs, education policy, health care issues, etc."

And I want a candidate with either proven, large-scale management experience, or, in the case of a legislator, someone who's built, staffed and directed a large-scale campaign that runs like a well-oiled machine.

This year, applying those standards at the state and federal levels, that's not a difficult call to make.

If I were a yard sign kind of guy, mine would be graced with "Obama" and "My Man Mitch."

If I were a put-your-money-where-yourconvictions-are kind of guy (and I am), my check register would have entries for the same two campaigns (and it does).

If I were a fiercely independent voter (and I am), I'd split my ticket up and down (and I will).

Gov. Daniels is running on a re-election platform of "Courage. Vision. Results." In this voter's opinion, that's more than a slogan. There's four years of proof in the pudding.

Obama's candidacy is courageous in and of itself. His vision for change has energized millions, engaged countless new participants in the democratic process and withstood withering primary and general election attacks. This gives me confidence he can rally the American people round our common cause and rebuild the global respect so vital to achieving results.

Election Day is three weeks away. I'm not asking you to vote for my candidates. But please vote. Please vote with knowledge and forethought. And please ignore that party lever unless you know in your heart and mind that all the best candidates are on one side of the ballot.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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