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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Qualifications Can Be Earned Door-to-Door

January 7, 2009

Many years ago when I ran for the state legislature most of my campaign days were spent going door-to-door talking with voters. They invited me into their homes - gave me a seat at the kitchen table and proceeded to ask me questions and tell me what they thought their government should be working on.

I learned early that something unique happens when a candidate connects with voters in their own home. It begins the communication process that must always exist between candidate and voter - and it is both humbling and exhilarating. It’s where a candidate learns to listen and gets some of his or her best ideas because voters ask direct questions and expect direct and honest answers.

Candidates who successfully handle making their case to voters one-on-one – without the aid of staff and outside the glare of the media spotlight – will inevitably be better prepared to serve once they are elected. This is called "retail politics" and almost all successful national politicians started their careers meeting voters just this way.

However, lately there’s been a lot of talk about various qualifications for office and the national debate has centered most notably on the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the United States Senate seat in New York that will open when Hillary Clinton is confirmed as Secretary of State.

The Kennedy appointment has brought about an avalanche of discussion about whether Ms. Kennedy has the right background to serve - and it has reignited comment about others’ qualifications, including Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and President-elect Barack Obama.

Voters and the media often look at the obvious when considering qualifications - focusing on background, life experiences, and education. While this is understandable - and should be part of the consideration - they may be missing something important.

Politics is not science - it’s chemistry. It requires judgment in the face of changing events and the ability to understand the future consequences of a political action taken today. This cannot be learned from a book, in a university classroom, or even passed down through family heritage.

This attribute is cultivated the hard way - through shared emotions and many, many discussions with ordinary citizens - and requires countless hours talking with voters to develop. This is what enables a politician to internalize any question and provide a thoughtful and coherent answer that a voter can relate to.

It’s also the primary reason many have listened to Ms. Kennedy with such anguish as she responds to questions poised to her by the New York media. Her insistent use of the phrase "ya know", "ya know" "ya know" "ya know" has demonstrated more than a lack of experience in talking or listening to voters who may be outside her own circle of friends.

This political inexperience is glaring and it may ultimately be the reason she is not appointed to the Senate seat by New York Governor David Paterson.

Ms. Kennedy is talented and she’s been well educated and involved in many worthwhile causes through the years. But if she wants to serve in the U.S. Senate, she might look beyond Camelot and study her father’s first run for Congress in 1946 - when he, too, was accused of not being qualified for the job.

Those who knew Kennedy in those early years considered him awkward and ill at ease with persons outside his own family and circle of friends. He was even uncomfortable shaking hands on street corners, they say.

But Kennedy worked hard and sought out voters on the campaign trail by relentlessly campaigning door-to-door where he talked endlessly with ordinary voters in his Boston congressional district - mostly longshoremen, freight handlers, and dock workers.

In the end, it wasn’t his education or his family connections that won him that first election. It was his willingness to listen and learn from the people he wanted to represent - and it became his most admired qualification.