Congressman ‘Tip’ O’Neill Had It Right: All Politics Indeed Is Local


By John A. Ostenburg

When you’re the mayor of a small town in a state that has produced two of the giants of American politics, your stature as a voice to be heard on matters of governance suffers from an innate and justified questioning of its authenticity.

I grew up in Springfield, Illinois – the city of Abraham Lincoln – and have experienced politics and governing in the same local arenas that nurtured Barack Obama. But aside from those two anecdotal ties to my state’s pair of most respected favorite sons, I really have had very limited exposure to the complicated workings of public policy that range all the way from confronting state secession to settling international crises.

Yet, I have a very distinct feeling that the most fundamental aspects of governing are those found at community meetings where I very often have to defend some local policy decision. In the summer of 2009, such local meetings nearly derailed health-care coverage for millions of American citizens who desperately need it. To a great extent, that happened because the elected leaders – congressmen and senators – who were conducting those sessions were playing the same role that small-town mayors and councilpersons play week-in and week-out, but they didn’t quite know how to handle it the way we do. Unfortunately, for many of those Washington-based officials, dealing with angry citizens in a face-to-face session was a bit overwhelming. The result was a lot of tails wagging a whole bunch of dogs.

From my perspective, the best lesson to learn from the late U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s admonition that “all politics is local,” is the importance of dealing with citizens at the local level. I know Speaker O’Neill was preaching the importance of winning votes at the local level when he made his oft-quoted statement, but the significance of his words is much greater. The voices of citizens at the local level give rise to comments that don’t carry the same lofty platitudes that are contained in the statements and questions that come from citizens who participate in the public debates held among candidates for president, U.S. senate, or congress. That’s why the senators and congressmen who suddenly were attacked at the various health-care town hall meetings were so unprepared for what they received.

In true local settings, citizens aren’t at all concerned about how they might look on television reports. They’re not all that concerned about whose feelings they might hurt. They’re not even all that concerned about the total accuracy of what they might be saying. They perceive, maybe even unconsciously, that no one is making any kind of public record of what is happening and so they let all their feelings – and especially their anger – flow out in an uncontrolled way. When they do that, a contagion often spreads through the entire audience, with others jumping on the bandwagon with their comments about how the system has failed. What happens is exactly what happened in the health-care town hall meetings.

When small-town mayors and councilpersons experience this type of circumstance, they generally know at least some of the folks in the audience on a personal basis. Maybe some are neighbors, or fellow workers at a local business or industry, or have kids who attend the same school. That personal acquaintance gives the local official the opportunity to say, “Now listen, Joe, you know that last statement isn’t true.” Many times that’s all it takes to defuse an otherwise volatile situation. That approach didn’t seem to be an avenue open to the officials holding the health-care meetings and, as a result, things just degenerated into shouting matches.

I happen to believe that local meetings are government at its finest. Yet I also recognize that uncontrolled local meetings can lead to nothing short of anarchy. They can be the hotbed for demagogues. They can create totally false impressions of public sentiment by being overrun by the loudest voices, even though those voices might not be representative of the true sentiment of the group as a whole. That’s where local leadership becomes so important. Someone needs to moderate the discussions in such a way that that the process isn’t shanghaied by a few whose purpose is nothing short of advancing their own narrow agenda. Again, that’s what happened with the health-care meetings.

Now, I don’t purport to be any more of a master of this process of moderating than might be anyone else, but I’m at least aware of the potential of what could occur and thus go into meetings with local residents prepared for the worst while praying for the best. I think that’s an attitude I share with lots of my fellow local officials. The art to stopping snowball effects from taking place is to recognize the significance of how much snow that initially tiny little ball will collect as it rolls down the slippery slope. That’s what compels one to jump in front of things and stop the decline before too much momentum is gained.

The goal should not be to quell public dissent, if indeed dissent is in order (as it very often is!); the goal should be to make sure an honest and forthright exchange takes place. I’m a great proponent of public policy that is developed from the head and not the heart; that means thoughtful public policy rather than policy born from emotional outbursts. It is incumbent upon the local leader in group-settings to make sure emotions don’t gerrymander the process; little of real value can be accomplished if it that occurs.

I recently had the occasion to meet with a group of citizens of a new subdivision in my town whose property assessments are literally off the charts. As a result, their taxes are greater, in some cases, than their mortgage payments. Taken together – taxes plus mortgage – the total dollar amount exceeds what many can afford to pay. Because of the high taxes, which are totally out of balance with what they were told at the time they made their purchase, some are facing the potential of losing their homes. It was not a pretty setting. The residents came to the meeting angry with municipal government because they believed we were responsible for setting both their tax rates and their assessments. At a couple of points during the session it looked as though the entire meeting hall was going to turn into a battle-zone. Fortunately, however, a little straight-talk kept the emotions in check, allowed most of the people in the room to gain a better understanding of the process, and ultimately resulted in residents who are eager to work with their local officials to bring about true and meaningful tax reform. Meanwhile, we – the elected officials – are working with them to find some ways of minimizing the negative impact of those tax bills.

I relate this story only to illustrate that even the most volatile of situations can proceed in the proper direction if the effort is made to set the record straight. At one point in the meeting, I had to raise my voice in response to voices that were raised against me. However, my voice was able to convey factual information, whereas a few of the loudest against me were speaking only from emotional perspectives. Even they ultimately came to see that the problem is greater than what local government can correct. They came to recognize, as many of the rest of us already had, that solutions come from clear thinking and not from shouting matches. Chaos never has as its intent to settle a dispute; it has as its intent to inflame a dispute. Therefore, ask yourself what the real motive is of those who would generate chaos at every turn.

The town hall meetings on health care didn’t need to turn into the messes that they ended up being. Many of the speakers at those gatherings had legitimate concerns and questions. Unfortunately, they were overpowered by a handful whose only intent was to stop anything at all from happening. The chaos-makers had a game-plan that had nothing whatsoever to do with health-care reform. Their game-plan was to stop health-care reform. Sadly, the elected officials who were present and should have shown the intestinal fortitude to suppress emotional outbursts and control the direction of the meetings at best didn’t know how to handle the situation, or at worst simply chose not to. As a result, all across the nation an inaccurate image of massive opposition to health-care reform took center stage. That in turn led to lots of amendments to the bills that were under consideration in congress and as a result all Americans will benefit from this legislation a little less than they should.

I have to think that a good part of the true leadership ability of both Abraham Lincoln, whose mastery of wit led him often to settle disputes before they got out of hand, and of community-organizer Barack Obama, who himself was able to deal with town hall meetings without any disruption whatsoever, is rooted in a local government approach to national policy-making. Both men seem possessed of a fundamental understanding of human behavior and know-how to deal with it positively rather than react to it negatively. It’s too bad so many members of congress – those who were over-run by their own town hall meeting audiences – don’t possess the same leadership style. If they did, we might have a much better health-care reform bill emerge from Washington than what we’re likely to receive.

The people’s voice always must be heard and must be listened to. However, when a handful dominate an assembly, it’s not “the people’s voice” that’s being heard; rather it is the voice only of the handful. And why, I ask, should the opinion of a handful ever be allowed to overpower the voice of the majority?

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.