One of the greatest myths of all time is the “free” public servant. In theory, the public sees someone who is responding to all the needs in the area by being in a place that allows them to have enough power to implement the policies addressing those needs. Realistically, people who participate in any level of government are subject to the structures, biases, and expectations of their offices, and rarely if ever venture outside of those parameters. There is nothing noble about maintaining the status quo in communities if inequity is the status quo. Thus, we will have to do more to both put people in place who do not have the same pedigree as other politicians on local levels, and we will have to demand more from people with all of the “right” qualifications on higher levels. Nothing is free, and people who can afford to work for free should start raising our eyebrows, not lining our local governments.
One has to keep in mind that just because someone is available to be a public servant without a salary does not mean that the upper-class echelon avoids them. In fact, the opposite is true, especially since that person has been available for the general public to voice their concerns. Those who have an interest in keeping their neighborhoods the way they want and those who believe that people unlike them are “unsafe” will seek out politicians and work towards making sure their needs are met, just like those with poor infrastructure and school equipment problems. No bubbles exist where a politician working for no money can be free of influence from the status quo, and most people with flexible schedules will spend their time making sure those “free” politicians toe the line.
Speaking of time, running for office takes time, and people who have flexible schedules that allow them to do campaign work are often people with a great deal of money. Occasionally there are people who have done non-profit work who are encouraged by said non-profit to run for office, but most of the time, even those people are higher level staff that the office supports. Frequently, people are able to be attorneys who support development in distressed communities at the expense of the residents, or they are people whose children have never attended a public school–but who feel entitled to run the public school system. Neither of the afore-mentioned scenarios speaks to people who are capable of dealing with the structural inequities that are felt, and the constituents feel those separations once those politicians reach their offices. To add insult to injury, those “free” workers are still able to do those jobs that directly counter the needs of their constituents, making progress feel impossible.
Most local level government positions are unpaid, but the higher up one rises in politics, the more opportunities there are to be paid. Someone might start out as a city councilmember, but once they reach the state level, they can begin to be paid, and the compensation varies between states. There are even county positions where people are paid, which means that someone does not have to greatly expand a position of influence and can make a more desirable salary. When people discuss the issue of “career politicians,” they are talking about politicians who literally see getting elected as getting a job, nothing more. People who use local governments as “stepping stones” because they are unpaid generally care less about appealing to their constituents than they do about getting to positions where more money is involved. Unfortunately, positions with more money have more power to affect the marginalized, and the compromises tend to be at the expense of those without means.
If “free” politicians lived in a vacuum where they were only approached by those with direct access to large volumes of people, not working for a salary might be helpful because it would mean affecting those with little voice instead of those with all the decision-making capacity. For example, if city councilmembers spent a week in the complaint departments of various city departments, or talking to those who answered phones for local government, they would get a very clear picture of what people complain about most, and could work towards compromise to address those people. However, that is not the case with most city councilmembers: they are approached by directors and professional-level staff who often have little interest in doing more than keeping their jobs. High level staff are not elected, and constituents are at the mercy of their whims to determine whether communities can have needs addressed or be neglected. Urban renewal was not just a policy decision; it was high-level staff choosing to divest certain areas in favor of others.
The biggest reason that there is no such thing as a free politician is because campaigning costs money. Some of the major politician “rockstars” have been able to be funded by more people thanks to crowdfunding technology, but it takes unbridled naivete to believe that any large group of people can make up for companies that can afford to write seven-figure checks. By the very nature of campaigning, politicians are forced to contend with people with money, and those with means have expectations of their politicians. No wealthy person is deliberately spending money on “revolutionary” candidates without know that the wealth and status are secure. Campaigns are nothing more than non-profits, which have also come under fire in recent years for being nothing more than money-making schemes without providing services. Needing money to get elected means that even “free” politicians cost something.
Finally, no politician will be “free” as long as people want those with advanced degrees and years of professional experience. Higher education and training cost money, and it says something about the cost of those pursuits with the President finished paying his college loans while he was in office. Getting leadership positions in the professional world could take years if not decades–except for the privileged few–which means that the people with leadership on their resumes have been immune from struggle for a while. As socioeconomic mobility becomes more of a myth, there are going to be fewer people with the time and energy to devote to the grooming required to be a “free” politician. Crowds tend to think that those with the most experience with the status quo can mold it, but what happens is that the status quo has molded everyone rather than be changed.
Truthfully, local governments are going to have to move in the direction of paying people in positions of influence. With wealthy people who can afford to take no money in one direction but who take lots of money in another, no one in a marginalized community will develop any sort of equilibrium. Committees and boards need to also most in this direction if cities are going to improve because the scheduling of those meetings allows the working class to be excluded. “Free” politicians are just as responsible for this societal downward spiral, and the time is now to eliminate that practice.