The following piece was first published in PLanet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.
Jackson, WY – It’s a moment that changed the trajectory of my life, and like other important moments in my life, it took place at a dive bar. My wife Stacy and I met at the Log Cabin Saloon.
In 2006, Stacy and I left our skid-luxury life in Jackson Hole so I could pursue a Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Washington to get the skills and knowledge to create a better future. My first quarter in graduate school I took a class in Legislative Relations co-taught by Jim McIntire, then Chair of the Washington State House Finance Committee (now the Washington State Treasurer), and Scott White, then Chief of Staff for the King County Council.
To kick off the class, Jim asked us to explain our experience working in the legislative arena. I spoke to the incredible summer I spent between my junior and senior years of college working as an intern and then legislative correspondent for Congressman Jay Inslee who is now the Governor of Washington. I explained how, “This experience working for Jay restored my faith in politics and got me stoked to pursue a career in federal politics.”
After class we all headed over to Kai’s for a drink (one of the best dive bars around). Scott sat down next to me and asked me to consider a career in local politics. He explained there’s nothing better than the feeling of walking on the sidewalk or riding the bus line you helped fund, playing with your kids in the park you played a role in getting built, splashing with them in the creek you helped restore, or seeing the faces of families moving into their new affordable home you secured a grant to construct.
In local politics you can literally see how your work makes people’s lives better. Perhaps more importantly, he continued, it’s nearly impossible to effect change at the federal level, but at the local level, you can get things done. This conversation shifted my life-trajectory into the fulfilling and impactful world of local politics.
In addition to being able to get things done, one of my favorite things about local politics is that it’s a lot like sports. Former Jackson mayor Mark Barron once explained the similarity to a class of our Conservation Leadership Institute – a program that has empowered 77 of your friends and neighbors with the skills and knowledge to create a better future for our community. “Local politics is a full contact sport. A fun contact sport,” Barron said.
Here’s the thing. As with sports, there’s a right way and wrong way to play politics. Fortunately, here in Jackson Hole, we generally play the right way. For example, take last Tuesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, January 12, the Jackson Town Council and the Teton County Board of Commissioners met to determine how to move forward on two issues that will shape the future of our community: (1) how to align our investments with our values to address our housing and transportation challenges, and (2) how to ensure our land use rules encourage walkable neighborhoods where at least two-thirds of people who work here can afford to live here, surrounded by protected open space, working agricultural lands, and connected wildlife habitat.
In order to determine the most productive path forward, our elected representatives listened to dozens of people with diverse opinions who constructively made their voices heard through our civic process. Then our elected representatives thoroughly reviewed the facts and data presented by their staff, thoughtfully considered how their decisions on these issues would help implement our Comprehensive Plan, and ultimately took two important steps forward.
Specifically, our local elected representatives voted to provide our community with the opportunity in November to support a consistent and predictable funding source – a general sales tax – to address our housing and transportation challenges. They chose to prioritize housing the middle class over more Marriotts by voting unanimously to move forward with land use rules that will limit new commercial and lodging development potential while encouraging housing affordable to people who work here in addition to respecting the conservation of open spaces and wildlife habitat.
While our community could stand to improve our civility and the level of respect we show folks with different opinions, last Tuesday provides a great example of the right way to play local politics and how our American democracy is supposed to work.
Then, there’s the wrong way to play politics.
You’ve probably heard that a few weeks ago, armed extremists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. This attack is unfortunately merely the latest effort in a well-orchestrated campaign funded by big corporations (led by Koch Industries) to privatize America’s public lands – including national forests and national wildlife refuges – so they are open to fossil fuel and mineral extraction. Since this anti-government effort to seize and sell our American public lands is deeply unpopular across the West, the militants involved with this campaign have resorted to illegal tactics like an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in a troubling and dangerous attempt to advance their extreme agenda.
Look, we all have concerns with the way our public lands are managed, but this is no excuse for an armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge. None of us would stand for people showing up at town hall with guns if they didn’t like the decisions of our town council.
America’s public lands belong to every American, which means we all have a voice in their management. Through our elected representatives in Congress, public meetings, and many opportunities for public process, every American has a say in how our public lands are managed. Our public lands are in fact a pillar of our democracy – and an attempt to seize those lands and lock the rest of us out is an attack on that pillar.
Let’s play the right way and make sure our elected representatives know we oppose the extreme agenda of those seeking to privatize our American public lands. PJH
P.S. This piece is dedicated to Scott White, who died tragically on October 21, 2011, from a cardiac problem linked to a previously undiagnosed enlarged heart. Scott left behind a wife, two young children, and hundreds of friends and colleagues touched forever by the role he played in our lives.