Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Interesting twist on political philosophies.

Learned long ago from a master, the late UU minister, Aron Gilmartin of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist church, all that I needed in order to succeed as an organizer activist. "Three things must never be forgotten, (1) "always make others look good," (2) "great things can happen if you don't care who gets the credit, and, (3) the best leadership is when that leadership is invisible to those being led."

An article prominently displayed in today's West County Times served as a reminder of these important truisms. There is a photograph of my legislator announcing a request for a formal state audit of the city's finances. Granted, there's a horrendous budget deficit of a projected 28 Million dollars (or more), but I suspect that at closer observation we'll find less malfeasance than mismanagement. In a state that has projected an even larger deficit, this is hardly surprising. City and county treasuries have been raided to satisfy state needs for many years. As in the innocent early days of my little store's struggling recovery, it was clear that -- as long as there was sufficient money in the pipeline -- one could move it around to cover the gaping holes. When things grew tight, disaster reigned! The state and city seen in microcosm. Bigger budgets, bigger deficits.

Over the past years of observing from an official position, it's been clear that most people at these lower levels of government are doing their level best to be competent. Most are people of integrity, and are making the best decisions they can under their particular circumstances. On occasion this turns out to be unreliable as a measure of intent, but for the most part I've found it so.

Ours is a majority minority city council with an African American mayor. Few of us have generations in public service to fall back on. All those at higher governmental levels are white and years ahead of the game. Political sophistication comes with experience, a rare asset not easily come by until the last fifty years. That's but a brief moment in time when viewed from a historical perspective.

Spring circa 1979:

After the heady victory of the re-naming of Grove Street to Martin Luther King Way (a move later adopted by the city of Oakland by ordinance), I started to immediately plan for the redevelopment of the 3000 block of Sacramento Street. It would take learning the political process well enough to move boards and commissions. It would take hiring myself out to a city hall position with Councilman Don Jelinek. With the assistance of a city-hired contract consultant, I'd need to create a Housing Development Corporation so that it was not something that I was doing to but with the community. That meant learning just what a HDC was -- along with other novices from the neighborhood. Then I'd need to not place myself in a position of obvious leadership. It would be important to begin to create strength toward social change in the community and that could not be done if I simply tried to drag others along. It would be important to move from the ranks and not try to be a drum major. Gil's formula was not only workable, but proved to be critical to all of the successes that followed. It took hard work to be what I wanted to see in the community, but in time it became second nature.

After several years of hard work and despite the occasional setback, we were finally at the point where the site had been secured (Berkeley put 8.5 million dollars into the project plus additional tax credits from the state), the architect chosen, the plans drawn, fancy cardboard model created, and -- ego began to rear its ugly head. I'd done such a good job of deflecting credit that I was beginning to feel burnout from lack of appreciation. Weird!

Made a call to my old (now rarely visited) UU church in Walnut Creek for a chat with Gil. "I've done such a great job of subtle leadership that no one knows the tremendous thing I've accomplished. What do I do now? I'm feeling in need of a standing ovation, and I can't get one without destroying all I've worked so hard to create! I can't steal the credit now, but I need confirmation of my worth."

Gil and I decided that it would be safe for me to return to Walnut Creek (psychologically 1000 miles away from Berkeley) to do a Sunday service where I would share the story out of hearing range of South Berkeley. On that Sunday I borrowed the large artist's renderings of the site, the table model of our 41-unit development, and set up impressive wall and table displays at the front of the sanctuary. I stood in the pulpit and told the story of "Betty's 500' Project" to this collection of old friends and colleagues and got my standing ovation as promised.

A few weeks later Mayor Loni Hancock (yes, the same legislator for whom I most recently worked), joined by members of the Berkeley city council, and -- a number of my suburban friends drove in to join with the South Berkeley community for the ground-breaking. I learned that day that -- despite my really carefully managed "invisible" leadership, many knew and respected that invisibility but tempered it with secret shared smiles. I felt more than adequately rewarded without sacrificing anything. The momentary lapse into ego-gratification didn't last. In fact, the successes of having honestly faced it and found a remedy helped me to move on. I learned that the rewards were often silent but rarely unnoticed, and my confidence in my own abilities soared and strengthed future efforts. Those rewards were not dissipated by vanity, surprisingly enough.

Today, June 2004

The West County Times article announcing Loni's request for a state audit of the city's books flies in the face of everything I believe about political leadership. The audit promises to be embarrassing to her local constituents (quite possibly a politically costly move). If I've read the signs correctly over the years, the problems will prove to be the result of mismanagement with a smattering of corruption. It will undercut leadership in that many will see the failures (rampant in many cities and states at the moment) as race-related rather than the result of the continuing effects of state and federal budget cuts and the residual structural problems related to Prop. 13. There is a lot to be corrected and some painful steps to be taken before financial stability returns to Richmond, but it would strengthen our state and federal politicians were they to apply their considerable power to bolstering the efforts of local leaders to help themselves to help their people. At this point we're seeing little that would suggest that kind of sensitivity.

It's also true that "invisible" leadership is antithetical to political leadership when the level is beyond that of the community. Higher office -- especially given term limits -- demands so much involvement in the process to continue one's tenure in office. Upon election, one must begin to create the next pathway to continuing power. "Visibility" is mandatory for survival in the political arena. To think otherwise is naive,I'm sure. I suppose that any aspirations I may have had for seeking public office were made untenable because of the experience of having the Gilmartin paradigm in my book of strategies.

I'd have had it no other way... .

Photo: I'm at the far right with then Berkeley mayor, Loni Hancock and city councilwoman (white-haired) Maudelle Shirek next to her. The others are community residents who lived within my proverbial "500 Feet," called South Berkeley.

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