Why We Fail: Avoiding the Evils of Elective Office

(from Maine Townsman, July 2008)
Dorothy Burton

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Dorothy Burton is a three-term Duncanville, Texas City Councilmember.  She is a writer, professional speaker and a member of the National League of Cities Women in Municipal Government Board of Directors. Driven by a passion to help others overcome fear, intimidation and failure, Dorothy is a versatile and popular speaker whose clients include community-based, faith-based, government and private organizations. 

She may be reached at (214) 662-4465 or by email: dorothy@dorothyburton.com,  www.dorothyburton.com, www.myspace.com/dorothy_burton            
“How have the mighty fallen!”  Apropos words given the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of the endless stream of elected and appointed leaders in modern day America.  Ironically, these words were the utterances of a despondent young leader, spoken centuries ago after he learned of the bloody downfall of his nation’s defiant king at the hands of an enemy that he should not have had to fight.  A man who rose from obscurity to notoriety to hold the highest office in the land – yet blinded by power and hobbled by hubris, he shamefully lost it all.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.  We are the elected leaders of the 21st century.  Like those who have gone before and those who will come after, we all carry the defective gene of imperfection – a gene that causes good people to do bad things; intelligent people to make less than intelligent choices; and, moral people to commit immoral acts.  However, unlike those who have gone before, our inherent weaknesses, wreckless behaviors and private failings are today laid bare through incessant broadcasts by a media that never sleeps; the internet; and, through the incendiary blather of talk-show hosts. Fair? No. Fair game – you bet.

We ask for scrutiny when we ask for the vote. It is not the media, the talking heads, nor the bloggers who are to blame for the anger, frustration and cynicism of a doubting public.  As Walt Kelly’s Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We hold public office and along with it, the public’s trust. I did not write this article to point fingers but to point out some things we can do better in order to right so many sinking ships.  The voters are fed up.  The public’s trust has been violated to the point that it is little wonder why citizens across the country are turning out in droves to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  They have had it – and rightly so.  The pressures of holding public office can be tremendous; but so can be the rewards.  However, we cannot take the rewards without taking the responsibility – and we have been entrusted with the awesome responsibility of making sure our neighborhoods are nice, our communities are safe, our business climates are strong, and citizens provided quality services.  Moreover, that we do it all with integrity, with the public’s interest and not our own, in mind. Given today’s caustic political climate, citizens are in no mood to accept anything less.

This article is not for you, the pretentiously smug politico, who fallaciously believes you are above it all and could never fall as others have fallen.  Never say never – it is often when we are at our peak that we unknowingly are at our weakest.  It is written with the hope of causing us all to look more closely at ourselves, because what drives us internally will be externally expressed in how we go about the business of governing.  Those expressions, good or bad will bring about incredible successes or humiliating failures.

Only in the seductive hotbed of Hollywood and the heady world of politics, do power, influence, greed, ego and sex collide and collude to bring down those who by virtue of the position they hold, are placed atop fragile pedestals of prestige and admiration. We clamor and claw to be part of this heady world, oblivious to the fact that victory may over time, out our proclivities and expose our vulnerabilities. It is a treacherous world in which a stupendously foolish, albeit private mistake can blow a once-promising career into oblivion and the swinging pendulum of public opinion knock from underneath us, the provisional pedestals we somehow thought would be permanent.

No matter if we lead one-horse towns or melting-pot metropolises, we all serve with the same flaw – our humanity. Furthermore, as humans, we can lie, cheat, steal and exercise poor judgment with the best of them. However, as elected and appointed officials, we are held to a higher standard and the price we pay is much higher, and the fall much harder.

If there were earned degrees in mistakes, I likely by now would have a PhD. My greatest satisfaction comes from teaching others how to recover from and altogether avoid common career-killers that lurk in the shadows of those who work and serve under the watchful eye of an unforgiving public. Our lives are viewed precariously through probing camera lenses and voyeuristically through clicks of a mouse.  Unlike others however, for you and for me, our fishbowl existence does not provide a convenient cloak of anonymity.

I refer to these career-killers as the evils of elective office. They are deadly; they are the genesis from which others are spawned; and, they have brought down some of the most seasoned officeholders:

Forgetting Our Purpose

Our purpose is not to seek notoriety, self-aggrandizement, nor to steer city business to family members, business associates and friends. We are not elected to grandstand or grind axes.

Our purpose is to do that which protects the health, safety and welfare of our citizens – period.  All else is ancillary.

Every ordinance we pass, every action we take should be rooted in the foundation of stewardship – not kingship, queenship, ownership or entitlement.  We run to serve, not to be served.

We do not own the office we hold. It is simply on loan to us from the voters to represent their best interests.  Should we lose sight of this and fail to do it, they will, at voting time reclaim it and loan it out to someone who will.

Second on the list, but tops among them all, is arrogance.  Arrogance is an internal, ticking time bomb that explodes in ways that always, without exception, bring about failure, mistakes, and self-defeat.

 It is a fatalistic, narcissistic view of ourselves and is the cause of some of the most crushing and humiliating downfalls.  People can  appreciate confidence, but they detest cockiness.  Furthermore, in politics, nothing brings more joy than when the self-important, self-righteous, pompous Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful gets their comeuppance.

Pride indeed goeth before a fall – and those of us who are arrogant will always fall back to earth the hardest.  What’s more, no one will be there to break the fall or pick us back up when we do.

Stay humble, because humble pie is always a bitter mouthful to swallow.

Ignoring the Core

There is a one-sentence life lesson most of us learned in grade school – “let your conscience be your guide.”  We don’t hear that much  anymore because our consciences have become seared and jaded.  Our conscience is that inner compass which serves as our reference point for deciphering right from wrong.  As keepers of the public’s trust, our consciences must be kept finely tuned. 

Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan explained it best, “you need a core inside you – a core that directs everything you do.  You confer with it for guidance.  It is not negotiable.  No amount of money will make you violate the core.  If you don’t have that, then forget about elective politics.  If you do, then it will guide you well.”

Don’t ignore your core; it is always trying to tell you something.


An old axiom in politics long forgotten is this: “If you lie to win, you will lie to stay in.”  Winning and holding on to your seat by consistently fudging the truth about yourself or others, will cost you. Lies have a way of growing feet, and when they do, they will chase you down and stomp your reputation and career into the ground.  Even the most practiced liars will eventually become ensnarled in their webs of deception.  Nothing is more important to the voting public than the truth – and the growing lack of it is the leading cause of citizen cynicism.  Tell the truth, even when it hurts – because it will hurt worse in the end once the truth is revealed. And the truth is always, at some point, revealed. We all make mistakes, but people are more willing to forgive a mistake than a lie.

Lies are cheap – but maintaining them can be costly.

Underestimating Risk

Everyone who dares to run for public office is a risk taker. There can be neither victory nor success in business or politics without taking risks.  While risk-taking is good, risqué behavior is stupid.  The one question we as public officials should never stop asking with any action we take is, “Is the risk worth the reward?”

Our talents will sometimes take us where our character cannot keep us.  When we underestimate the risk, it is not that we don’t know better – we do; it is not that we don’t care about the consequences – we do.  We just lose sight of who we are, what we represent in the eyes of the public, and subconsciously think we are smarter than the average Joe.  Being caught up in the emotions of the moment, we simply do not stop to think what will happen if we are caught.

Will it hurt those who have placed their trust in me?  Will it damage my name, reputation and credibility?  Count the costs, and then ask yourself, is the risk worth the reward?

Ruling out the Rules

Victory at the ballot box does not give us a free pass. Oftentimes as we become more comfortable in our roles, we become more comfortable with breaking the rules. The rules we make and the rules we swear to uphold apply to us as they do everyone.  No one is above the law and eventually, rule breakers are caught.  It is embarrassing when the rule breaker is also the rule maker.  Spare yourself and your family from this humiliation. Follow the rules - don’t bend them, don’t break them and don’t cover for those who do.

Electronic Communication

Each e-mail or text message you send has the potential of being broadcast on the evening news, posted on the internet, printed in the next edition of your local newspaper or forwarded to your worst enemy.  Use extreme caution.  If possible, a phone call should always be the first option.  When the conversation ends, the receiver can be put back into the cradle and it’s over.  However, when you press the “send” key, like with the proverbial genie, you can never put the message back into the bottle.  When it is out there, it is out there – permanently.  Never send an e-mail, text or instant message of which you would be ashamed if it were re-printed in your church bulletin.  It is just that critical.  Benjamin Franklin once said, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.”  Never send an e-mail when you are angry. Cyberspace is not your friend, and in politics, neither are your friends.

There is no loyalty in politics, no permanent friends and no permanent enemies – only permanent issues.  Those whom today you count as friends, colleagues and supporters, could tomorrow be on the opposite side of an issue.  What today may be a comical e-mail shared between friends, could tomorrow be used to deep-six your career.  Politics makes for strange bedfellows; and these days, electronic communication makes for a dangerous ménage a trois.  

Seven Evils – One Astounding Result

Forgetting Our Purpose
Ignoring the Core
Underestimating Risk
Ruling out the Rules
Electronic Communications

As for the despondent young leader at the beginning of the article – his name was David and he later became king.  He assumed office almost immediately following the death of his predecessor whose fall he bemoaned – King Saul. David over time would experience his own spectacular fall from grace – and if not vigilant, so will we. 

The more things change…