Ramsey: The Fred Rogers test, for Texas public officials
The late Fred Rogers told a story to help kids through terrible times. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Mr. Rogers said, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.’”
That’s not a bad test for voters considering political candidates. Who’s trying to shake you up? Who’s trying to work out the problems we face? Are they telling you what to fear — or how they’re going to fix it? Are they complaining about their opponents — or saying how they’d go to work?
During political seasons like the one we’re in, there’s more fake drama about current events than real proposals to make things better. Challengers are often facing incumbents, and that means they have to try to discredit the government in order to persuade voters to call for a change. Incumbents are busy telling us the newbies would mess everything up.
Many of them don’t specifically address what they think needs to be done, at a time when they could be setting an agenda — and getting voter ratification for it — by talking about how they’d solve some of Texas’ biggest problems.
Candidates are good at describing problems. They’re great at sweeping phrases, too, like “if elected, I’ll fix that.” But they speak in generalities, and what happens when they’re elected — or more to the point, what doesn’t happen — somehow slips past voters when it’s time to put people in office.
Teachers in Texas are overworked, underpaid, micromanaged and asked to do a lot more than teach children. Everybody says that, everybody knows that, and the lawmakers who are now talking about it on the campaign trail are often the same people who didn’t do much to fix it in the last legislative session, or the one before that.
Instead, they’re talking about removing books from libraries and “protecting” children from learning about the state and the country’s racial history, and how that is reflected in laws and legal precedents that remain in place today.
Police have many of the same problems teachers have, starting with assignments that ought to be in other hands. The state’s jails and prisons are home to many people with mental health problems — a health care concern that has been effectively assigned to law enforcement.
Rural hospitals in Texas are buckling: 26 have closed since 2010, according to the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, and 158 remain.
Inadequate rural broadband gets a lot of attention from politicians, too, and has a chance to be a bright spot. The state has a new office focused on broadband access and affordability and also some money from the infrastructure funds approved by the federal government last year.
The state’s foster care system is shambolic, tangled in court, and a good example of a longtime problem lawmakers and policymakers haven’t been able to tame. It’s a potential campaign issue for outside candidates criticizing insiders, but the solutions have been evasive. Solving it would be a campaign issue, too — one to brag about. Nobody’s tried that.
The list of problems to fix is a long one. State government was built for things like this, an organized way to work out large-scale, gnarly problems of interest to every Texan. Political campaigns aren’t aimed at solving those problems, but they are aimed at the problems of getting elected. Think of the Texas border with Mexico, a real problem and also a campaign issue. The finger-pointers are busy, but the proposed solutions aren’t in those commercials; a lot of Texas vs. the federal government, and not a lot of here’s the way to fix it.
There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13, as NASA officials are finding out the astronauts are in danger of not making it back to Earth, when flight director Gene Kranz turns their attention to their jobs.
“Quiet down, quiet down. Let’s stay cool, people. … Let’s work the problem, people.”
That’s the sort of person Mr. Rogers was talking about, and the sort you should look for when you’re deciding who’ll get your vote.
Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.