Several times this summer and fall I have asked myself whether I ought to gin up more enthusiasm for the upcoming Worcester municipal election.
But every time I looked at the ballot, heard a candidate speak, or read a profile or election story, I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed for the extra sleep.
If the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne were running, I’d feel differently. We’ll get back to him later. But he’s not, and the truth is that this Worcester municipal election is about as inconsequential as an election can get.
Perhaps, like incumbent Mayor Joe Petty, you believe Worcester is a city on the rise, with abundant investment, strong schools, great restaurants, a new hockey team, and a can-do spirit that has left its gritty mill city reputation in the past.
Perhaps, like challenger Konnie Lukes, you believe there is another Worcester, one missing out on prosperity, where gangs run rampant, drug-dealing is rife, there are too many empty storefronts, an opioid epidemic spirals out of control, and councilors fail to address problems like an over-reliance on property taxes.
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Either way, you’d be right. Worcester has much to be proud of and much to work on. Happily, it is overwhelmingly likely that both Petty and Lukes will remain on the City Council.
Petty’s chief virtue is to almost perfectly mirror the city itself. He shows up. He takes part. He says the right things. He surrounds himself with competent people. In short, he tries. And if he doesn’t always get things just right, he keeps trying.
Lukes’ chief virtue is to be a complete pain in the butt. She almost always has and expresses a contrarian view. She follows the money. She deflates egos. She’s often right. And even when she’s obviously wrong, she makes Worcester a more interesting place.
Besides, she told Worcester Magazine: “It is patriotic not to trust politicians, and you shouldn’t trust me either.” How can you not respect that?
Now, with moderate effort, you can find differences between Petty and Lukes on policies. But does anyone believe it really matters which of the two occupies the office of mayor? Both have done the job, so they share some responsibility for the good and the bad playing out in Worcester in 2017. But the ideological divide here is very small. Simply put, both want what’s best for the city, and pursue somewhat different paths to that goal.
The rest of the ballot offers a similar story. The candidates all care about the city. They are bright, able, and willing to serve. It’s just that it will make next to no difference who wins. If Dante Comparetto joins the School Committee, or Benjamin Straight grabs an at-large City Council seat, they’ll discover how quickly bureaucracy, long meetings, and gadfly constituents can drain life from a human soul.
None of which stops them all from running con brio, as the Italians say. Why else does Gary Rosen spend most of his waking hours on a traffic island waving to motorists entering and exiting Kelley Square from several dimensions?
Well, I wish them all the best of luck on Election Day. Whoever wins, Worcester will be in good hands. But I suspect voter turnout will be abysmal.
If so, it might have something to do with Montaigne, who in the course of his bookish life served two terms, competently, as mayor of his town. He much preferred writing essays and composing political philosophy.
I’ve merely sampled Montaigne, who is inexhaustible, so defer to Holy Cross’s own David Lewis Schaefer, whose 1990 volume on Montaigne is — and I trust David will pardon both my adjective and my having skipped to near the end of his book — awesome.
“As Montaigne’s account of his mayoralty signifies,” Schaefer writes, “politics is henceforth to be understood in a subordinate or instrumental sense, providing an environment in which people may freely pursue private and pacific goals, rather than as an arena of grand and glorious undertakings.”
That nicely sums up how I view politics these days. Run if you must, but don’t make such a deal of it. Perhaps all the voters staying home on Nov. 7 share that view, and are pursuing their private and pacific goals rather than queuing up to cast ballots.
OK, they’re probably just watching TV.
But low turnout has the salutary effect of keeping politicians humble. And all of them could use some humility from time to time.
Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.