No matter where you are on the Sanderson Farms issue — pro-chicken plant or not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY), the whole sorry and embarrassing episode has probably spurred you to ponder the quality of leadership in
our community.

I have pondered and continue to do so with each new revelation in this contorted and continuing local drama.

In no particular order, here are some of the questions I ask myself.

Some of our elected officials are clearly less informed than some of their constituents. Are their informational packets lying unopened on their kitchen counters? How did they come to make the votes they did?

Why was the chicken processing plant allowed to become an issue of “us” against “them?” Lower income people pitted against others with more means? People with less education facing off with those with more?  

How did Sanderson Farms find our community in the first place? Livestock processing plants generally seek rural locations with lots of space and sparse population, not sites adjacent to major metropolitan areas. Was the project suggested to, some would say thrust upon, our community by anxious economic developers frantic for new jobs of any sort? Did political interests elsewhere in the state play their own game of NIMBY by sending Sanderson to us?

Only a handful of people know the answers to such questions, and they are not talking. You and I can only speculate and wait for the next installment.  Eventually, though, the Sanderson Farms fiasco will pass, one way or another, becoming either part of our community or part of our history.

One question that does linger — at least for me, is why so many smart, able people of good will decline to run for public office at any level even though many do participate in our community in civic and philanthropic ways? 

I am thinking of people who run our community’s businesses, people who are respected within their own professions, who are our community’s success stories and whose families are invested here in many different areas. Having a few political genes myself, as well as a deep interest in seeing our community grow and prosper, I have asked more than a handful of people I admire to consider running for one office or another. With only one exception, the answer has been not just “No” but “Heck, no!”— or some stronger variation of that sentiment.  

I cannot help but believe such responses constitute a great loss to all of us.

When I ask them why, the responses have always been some version of “Why would I want to associate with ‘those people?’ I am not a politician.” “Why would I want to put myself and my family through all that?” Sometimes they throw in comments like “I do not have time for all those meetings” or “I travel a lot.” Never has one of them said something like, “I guess it is time I give some of my time and talent to my community.”

Believe me, I get it. 

Serving in public office is truly rewarding when you know you have done something positive for other people, but it does require significant sacrifices not only by the office holder but by their families. The politics of getting elected are expensive and can be brutal. All of this is ramped up depending on what office is being sought. Last year’s U.S. Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis cost nearly $100 million and featured mostly misleading ads and half-true pronouncements. It will be worse in next year’s Presidential contest.

Pay is also an issue in some offices. State legislators, including those in North Carolina, are mostly poorly paid. North Carolina’s legislators’ base salary is just under $14,000. That alone precludes service for many people who simply cannot afford to be in Raleigh four days a week at that salary. No wonder that “retired” is the occupation most legislators report. Our local offices pay a little better and no one has to rent an apartment or get a hotel room. 

That being said, I yearn for capable and selfless people who are not only willing but who want to contribute to their communities, especially to ours, through elective service. There have been many over the years on our school board, city councils and county commission, but there have also been a number of people who sought and achieved public office for more personal, less noble reasons.  

No wonder the American public, including those of us who make our homes in Cumberland County, are so cynical and vote in declining numbers.

I am profoundly grateful for the many capable, courageous and dedicated people who have served our community in elective office over the years, sometimes at significant cost and sacrifice to themselves and their families. I also hope there are others like them in our community who are willing to consider such service.

I would go so far as to say it is their duty.

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