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Enshrining civility 

Politics is dirty and getting dirtier, but elected officials should know that and act accordingly

Long ago and not that far away, I ran a campaign for county supervisor. I was 29 and had never done it before. I worried that I wasn't up to the job, but I believed in my candidate and her proposals.

As the campaign progressed, our opponents began to assail my candidate in ways that had nothing to do with her platform and that I considered brutal and unfair. Outraged, I responded in kind.

It was a nasty campaign (although genteel by today's standards; this was 1972). When it was over I had two takeaways: Political campaigns can be vicious. And—this was the tough one to swallow—so could I. I never managed another campaign.

I mention this because the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is about to create a code of conduct, something that will tell elected officials how to behave.

It's a great idea. But I hope it doesn't stop at "you should always be polite and civil, no matter what."

The code should warn elected officials, and candidates, about the abuse they might have to endure, during the election and after they take office. It gets repugnant and malicious, extending to the candidate's family and friends. Would-be office holders need to know this.

Dirty campaigning is nothing new. My son the American history teacher tells me things got nasty even back in Jefferson's day. Politicians from John Adams to Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell have dished it out and taken it.

That shouldn't happen at the local level. Elected public servants hereabouts on school boards, city councils, boards of supervisors are neighbors. Many are unpaid, or are paid pennies. They expect political criticism but shouldn't have to hear their children slandered or get trolled about what lowlifes they are.

I've covered local politics for decades, and I have watched the level of this discourse sink to unfathomable depths.

Part of that is due to the localization of political slime by "campaign consultants," who lie and attack for a living and have no moral boundaries. Their one imperative is to win, regardless of the human carnage.

The other pollutant is, of course, the internet and all the electronic doodads, tweeting and twittering and YouTubing and Facebooking.

At the SLO County Board of Supervisors there is a public comment period, as well there should be. But some "citizens" take advantage of their right of expression to belittle and humiliate others. I have seen supervisors accused of criminal acts, moral turpitude, and more. I have seen speakers allege drug use by public officials' children. I know of elected officials who were confronted at their homes by angry voters.

Locally, some of that hate-mongering and personal invective have an orchestrated echo chamber on the aforementioned internet, as well as on a local radio talk show and a fake news web site that has been discredited but that some people still believe.

Taken together it's a cacophony of personal attack that would challenge anyone.

At this point some readers are going to see this as an apologia for Adam Hill, a county supervisor who after years of personal attack got in hot water for his intemperate responses, most recently telling a critic to "f--k off." He shouldn't have done that. And I'm not asking anyone to excuse him.

What I am asking is that you put yourself in his—and too many other elected officials'—shoes. Imagine yourself sitting on the dais while someone steps up and accuses you of being a nut job and your wife and children of being criminals.

Would you just sit there and take it? You have to.

If that dynamic is not OK with you, don't run for office.

Hill last week stepped back from public service in part because of the poisonous effects of his own and others' vitriol but also because he suffers from depression. The depression is exacerbated by the acidic politics but also by seeing powerless people suffering despite efforts to help them.

Quoting Camus, he says, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Every time Sisyphus rolls that rock to the top of the hill, it rolls right back down. It's a challenge for someone with a conscience working in government to accept that.

Is there anything anyone can do about toxins in public life?

On a personal level, you can learn to not respond to provocation. I have experience here.

While I never ran another political campaign, I did become an opinion writer. After politicians and police, nobody faces such bile and rancor. In addition to personal insults, I had death threats, mistreatment of my family, attempts to get me fired, and, especially, efforts to suck me into a never-ending, soul-draining verbal back-and-forth.

Except for the stuff involving family, I learned to deal with it. For the most active trolls, I even taped a sign to my phone: "Don't take the bait."

That's the personal solution, not easily achieved. On the government level, let's go back to the code of conduct. It should include a section on the behavior of those who speak.

This is dicey. Garbage-mouthed ignoramuses have the right to be garbage-mouthed ignoramuses.

Nonetheless, I think the chairman should keep a lid on egregious behavior. Former county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi was the best I ever saw at this. If someone stood up and said Supervisor X is sleeping with Supervisor Z's wife, Bianchi would pound the gavel into the podium like Thor with his hammer. The current chairman is a campaign consultant who lives in, accepts, and contributes to the world of invective, so we're not going to get Bianchi redux any time soon.

But there will be other chairmen. A code of conduct, astutely written and assiduously followed, could tamp down nastiness and elevate the body politic. Δ

Bob Cuddy is an award-winning columnist, now retired and living in Arroyo Grande. Send your thoughts

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