The debris from recent storms and residue from nature’s seasonal budding cycles bring forth the opportunity to sweep clear (as compared to power blow) walkways and driveways of dead twigs, decaying berries, and dry leaves. By one’s own hand, every surface is purged as all dirt is vanquished even in the most angular nooks and crannies. A new freshness is revealed, if only until the next strong wind showers more debris upon the recently-swept grounds.
Likewise, with the upcoming elections, many of the electorate seems metaphorically intent on sweeping away the existing class of representatives. For frustrated voters who believe their elected officials are, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, constitutionally tone-deaf, political sweeping will be satisfyingly therapeutic in the short term, resulting in a clean slate for a while. Yet, the challenge for voters is how to keep the newly-elected body politic fresh even in the subsequent face of contretemps and the daily wear and tear of the political process. Sweeping for the sake of sweeping has little lasting benefit — whether on lawns or in politics.
Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly, who served as mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1991 to 1995, is a telling local example of the difficulties of achieving and maintaining successful political sweeping. Her predecessor, Marion Barry, mayor for the twelve previous years, faced mounting political troubles during his third term. The nation’s capital was in well-publicized decline, with rising hard drug use and distribution, escalating violence, mismanaged finances, bloated government bureaucracies, deteriorating schools, and a shrinking population. Barry himself was caught on videotape using crack cocaine, for which he was subsequently arrested, convicted, and jailed. He then withdrew from the 1990 mayoral race in mid-campaign.
D.C. voters were clearly ready for a clean sweep when Kelly, who had never previously run for elected office, announced her candidacy. Kelly boldly promised to cut Washington’s murder rate, which was the highest in the nation, and shrink the city’s budget by eliminating 2,000 municipal jobs. To symbolize her commitment to clean up D.C. government, Kelly wore a lapel pin shaped like a shovel.
With Barry out of the race, Kelly won the primary and general contests by convincing margins. At her election night celebration, she wielded an actual broom, which she ceremonially swept for the cameras. Hope and great expectations were in the air.
Four years later, Kelly’s career as mayor was ended by none other than Marion Barry. While Mayor Kelly could not deliver on her campaign promises and increasingly publicly feuded with the D.C. City Council, Barry, seen in some circles as a victim of heavy-handed federal law enforcement, served his time and began his political rejuvenation by winning a D.C. Council seat in the 1992 election. In the 1994 mayoral primary, Barry edged out John Ray for the Democratic nomination. Later that year, he won his fourth term as mayor. Kelly finished a distant third in the primary, with 14 percent of the vote, an all-time low for an incumbent. There were no brooms or shovels in sight on primary night.
As the Kelly-Barry mayoralty contests demonstrate, the voting populace is as fickle as the candidates’ execution of campaign promises. The sweeping change called for in the 1990 election was nowhere to be found by 1994.
To avoid similar scenarios this November and in two years hence, voters should be well-advised to focus on the track record and policy positions of incumbents and their challengers in a few matters where government has undisputed responsibility. One area, obviously, is budget management. Another, less pronounced but equally important, is the proper guarantee of the right to vote for those hundreds of thousands of men and women on active duty defending our country overseas.
The men and women who put themselves in harm’s way defending our nation should have unquestioned assurance that their voice will count in elections. Regrettably, many military personnel are disenfranchised because of antiquated mailing logistics. Though there are recently-enacted federal laws requiring states to guarantee timely distribution of ballots to overseas military personnel, individual states have been uneven in compliance and the federal government uneven in enforcement. In this Internet Age, there must be a simple, secure way to expedite the voting process for all overseas military personnel. The public should use its political brooms to sweep in those office-seekers who do care about this vital constitutional right being properly executed, and sweep out those who do not.
Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.