We have three statewide offices in Virginia this year. Most of the attention in the blogosphere has gone to the increasingly heated Democratic primary among Brian Moran, Terry McAuliffe and Creigh Deeds for Governor. We have only one candidate so far (with the opportunity to file only a few weeks away ) for Attorney General, Steve Shannon. We have four declared candidates for Lieutenant Governor - Jon Bowerbank, Pat Edmonson, Mike Signer, and Jody Wagner. I am fortunate to know all four to varying degrees. I have decided to support the last to join the race, Mike Signer. In this piece I will offer my reasoning. Mike has known since Friday March 20 that I was going to endorse him. He has no prior knowledge of my reasoning. And I have contacted all three of the other candidates to let them know I would be endorsing someone else, but that I wished them well.
I originally planned to stay neutral in this race as I have in the top spot. It was only after Signer got in the race that I began to consider if maybe I might be willing to make a commitment. I had several opportunities to talk with him, to observe him interact with others, including at a book event. And I read and reviewed the recently published book he produced from his dissertation. In the process I began to see how his mind worked, and that began to intrigue me.
Many people might be dismissive of someone running for Lt. Gov - a position with little formal power beyond presiding over the state senate - whose most recent major political position had been as a foreign policy advisor to a failed presidential candidate. Yes, he also had a politics and policy position with a Congressional candidate who won - Tom Perriello. But Mike does not see things in separate vertical stovepipes. His book on demagogues is in part about foreign policy, but also in part about understanding aspects of the American experiment in democracy. And as a teacher of government, I found the book quite useful in thinking about the deficiencies in our national approach to civic education.
I have talked with several people formally supporting Mike Signer, and a number of others still officially neutral but whom off the record will admit being drawn to his candidacy. People of whom I think highly have good things to say about Mike. And he has experience and connections around the state. That includes service with Governor Mark Warner in the counsel’s office, with the state party doing voter protection work, with the legislature as an assistant to Creigh Deeds, and as noted with the recent successful campaign in which Tom Perriello unseated longtime Congressman Virgil Goode. He even did research for Steve Shannon, our candidate for Attorney General, when Steve first ran for the House of Delegates. I would argue that Mike Signer has as much experience around the different parts of the state and in different aspects of government and politics as any of his competitors, perhaps even more. Thus even though he lacks the name recognition of a former high executive branch appointee and Congressional candidate (Wagner) or the elective experience the other two rivals (Edmonson on Virginia Beach School Board and Bowerbank on Russell County Board), he is more than ready to compete statewide both in the primary and against incumbent Republican Bill Bolling in November.
But that is not why I decided to actively support Mike Signer. What draws me is how I see him using the office and the few staffers to which he is officially entitled. Beyond the normal constituent and liaison work,I expect him to use the office almost as a government think tank - exploring ideas and policies, reaching out to public and private sectors in Virginia, getting people involved in thinking about policy, and touching base with creative efforts in other states. Mike is interested in ideas and the policy implications that flow therefrom. And lord knows the Old Dominion could use some serious intellectual exploration when not directly under the gun to produce immediate results, which I think is a fair description of what any Virginia governor faces, given the limitation of one four-year term for that office.
One important point about such an approach to the office of LG is that it is a model that works regardless of the party of the Governor or the control of the state senate. While the latter will likely continue in Democratic hands at least until the legislature meets after the election of 2011, and while I surely hope that Tim Kaine will be succeeded by someone from our party, I see Mike able to use his approach to the office regardless of who runs the government.
That appeals to me. First, I am interested in ideas and the policies that flow from them, not merely because I teach government to high school students,but because I care deeply about this nation, both in the short term and for the time long past when my own life has ended. Without that perspective I probably would not teach, because I will not, in my 60s, live to see all the results of what I do now with students, most of whom are tenth graders. But it is more than that. I think it is important from time to time that we step back and reexamine the assumptions by which we operate. One needs to understand the political process, have a sense of history, and the capability of seeing possibilities even when others may be dismissive of such things. Perhaps those others will point to failed previous attempts without fully examining how the times might be more conducive to such an approach or an idea. Mike knows the history, having been around Virginia politics,but he also knows previous history does not rigidly bind how we can choose to act now, no matter how much respect we may give to traditions.
Mike Signer is not a hothouse intellectual. He has participated in the rough and tumble of politics for most of his adult life. He understands that there are limits to what one might be able to achieve politically. He also knows that unless we are willing to think well beyond present practice, we will only make incremental change that may be insufficient for the challenges we face.
Mike has a core set of beliefs,revolving around a concept of constitutionalism that he derives in part from studying the work of Hannah Arendt. He writes in In his book that Arendt came to realize that you defeat a demagogue with
a culture of of individual self-reliance, the gift and the radical responsibility of the individual burden of political choice, and the cultivation of a constitutional conscience in the hearts and minds of citizens.
He warns that by itself democracy is
like a body without a soul. What powers a successful constitutional democracy is a constitutional conscience among the people
. Several sentences on p.210 give a sense of how he thinks this should play out in a democratic context:
In the end, constitutionalism is about ordinary people doing ordinary things in their ordinary lives to an extraordinary end.
But constitutionalism isn’t about laws, precisely - it's about the spirit that underlies those laws.
That spirit requires the involvement of the people. And I sense that Mike Signer would like to use the office of Lieutenant Governor of Virginia to reignite a sense of Constitutionalism, of the involvement of “We, the people” in the meaningful governance of our republic. Perhaps after the election of Barack Obama, we as a nation are again ready to explore the meaning of a democratic republic, and to recall Franklin’s response to the question of what kind of government the Philadelphia convention had created: A republic, if you can keep it. For too long government has been done to us in the name of being for us. I think there is another path we can and should follow, and I can see that in the outlook of Mike Signer.
Here I think of the words we heard so often from Bobby Kennedy, derived from George Bernard Shaw:
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
It is not that Mike Signer evokes the kind of inspiration that others got from Bobby, or from his older brother Jack, or perhaps more recently from Barack Obama. I would not argue that. But I would suggest that his willingness to engage in ideas invites the participation of others.
It is that participation, that broadening of who gets to speak to the possibilities of new and different ways of doing things, which excites me about Mike Signer. And that is why, for whatever value my words may carry, I announce my support of his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
I am FOR Mike. I am NOT against his opponents, all of whom I admire and respect. And should any of them win the nomination, that person would have my full and enthusiastic support against Bill Bolling’s attempt for another term as a Republican Lt. Gov.
I also acknowledge that at the moment I write these words, Mike is not favored to win the primary. That plays no part in my decision, which is based solely on my reaction to the things I have observed and ascertained by watching Mike, reading his book, talking with him, and talking with people who have known him far longer than the brief period I have known him.
So take my words as you choose. That’s your decision. My decision is to make a public declaration of support for Mike Signer. I have now done so.