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Let’s do the homework and ask good questions of our political candidates

REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
Minnesota has plenty of candidates applying for elected jobs at the state, local, and federal level.

American elections are giant job searches, with the candidates as applicants and the electorate as hiring managers. Picking a wonderful person is important, but matching the candidate with the job responsibilities is also paramount. Unfortunately, campaigns are controlled by the candidates, not by the future employers and often the results are not to our benefit. Remember we hired our last president because a businessman knows how to “drain the swamp” and run things well.

As Minnesotans, we still have the chance to get close enough to those seeking state and local offices to ask the questions we find important. Most of the time our queries boil down to “Do you agree with me on issue X?” and “Are you electable?” I’d like to suggest that those are like the first questions at a job interview. They are the equivalent of asking a potential bartender if she is a militant teetotaler or making sure that the applicant for Chief of Pediatrics really did graduate from medical school. Failure to do this basic vetting has left us with some unfortunate candidates and electeds, as those of you who remember Jon Grunseth and Anthony Wiener will agree.

When hiring for a new position, or refilling an old one, the managers and team generally start by discussing the roles and responsibilities of the position and the minimum qualification and experience they are looking for in a future employee. It is striking to me how rarely we state what the governor actually does or how the chief executives role differs from that of a legislator or a mayor.

Minnesota’s constitution isn’t much help, as it only states that the governor must be 25 years old and a resident of the state for a year. Enumerated duties include: communicate by message to each session of the legislature information touching the state and country; call out military and naval forces to execute the laws, suppress insurrection and repel invasion; ask the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments; appoint notaries public and other officers provided by law; and shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

Executive skills

Our governors and mayors are charged with running unwieldy bureaucracies with arcane rules and staffers filling obscure positions. These executives have to be willing to answer for the actions of staff they’ve never met whose actions may be beyond their control. Have you ever seen this responsibility addressed in a piece of campaign literature? Since governors and mayors can’t be everywhere, they need to hire commissioners and staff. Have you ever been at a candidates’ forum where a citizen stood to ask how appointees will be chosen?

Frankly, a lot of governing is boring and requires attention to detail. Our laws are full of phrases like this: For purposes of this subdivision, “average high cost multiple” has the meaning given in Code of Federal Regulations, title 20, section 606.3. During campaigns, we ask candidates to march in parades, shake hundreds of hands, and show their vitality. When do we ask them to read 400+ page budgets, let alone prepare them by a deadline?

Now it’s easy to say that our officials are figureheads and that the staff will teach them the basics after they’re sworn-in. Still it’s an awfully big fire hose of information to drink from if you’re totally new to governing or switching from a legislative role to an executive role. How should we interview candidates about their funds of knowledge, ability to learn, and attention to detail?

Further assessments

Too often we ask our leaders to deal with unexpected tragedies — bridges falling down, children dying whose neglect was overlooked by a government agency, terrorism, and other losses too terrible to imagine. Not only do we ask them to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again, but we ask them to speak with wisdom and comfort in times of tragedy. It is essential that our interview process include an assessment of the candidates’ abilities to multitask, delegate, and effect change as well as their maturity to act wisely to help us in challenging times.

We need to think hard as we review their résumés and then head to candidate forums with interview questions. Don’t be satisfied with talking points, canned responses, and broad answers. Find out what our applicants actually know about the jobs they are applying for and if they have the temperament and skills to fill them.

Minnesota has plenty of candidates applying for elected jobs at the state, local, and federal level. This year let’s taking our responsibility at least as seriously as the manager of a McDonald’s hiring a new fry cook. Let’s ask good questions and make sure we hire the best candidates for our elected positions.

Beth-Ann Bloom is a mom, genetic counselor, and community volunteer from Woodbury. She is not applying for elective office.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/25/2017 - 09:34 am.


    It would be interesting if our to be or elected officials understood where taxes come from i.e. peoples pockets, and were a little more attentive to things like personal responsibility, hand ups vs. hand outs.

    • Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 09/25/2017 - 10:03 am.


      What interview question will you ask candidates to check their understanding of this information?

      • Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 09/25/2017 - 06:45 pm.

        The media should be our objective truth seekers

        Professional journalists–not casual bloggers sharing their ‘opinions’–should be our objective truth seekers and should be asking a myriad of questions constantly, as well as doing in-depth background research, conducting interviews, and disseminating all of that info in easy to read fashion to all Americans. I personally favor comparison charts most.

        It has become about a fulltime job these days to stay abreast of the news, let alone do deep research on all candidates; the average working person simply doesn’t have the time. But we are all living now with the horrible result of voters not doing their due diligence, and being too easily mislead as a result, and that can never happen again. Far more care needs to be applied when casting a vote, as our elected officials have great power and control over our country’s policies, economy, defense, education, air & water quality, health and so much more.

        A popular phrase some years back was that we needed more people to vote. I would amend that to say: we need more better informed voters! An uninformed voter is not a good or helpful thing:(

  2. Submitted by Sandra Nelson on 09/25/2017 - 02:51 pm.

    Minneapolis Mayoral Candidates

    For starters:

    In your view, what are the Minneapolis Mayor’s top three responsibilities in #1, #2, #3 order?
    State each in one sentence. What prior professional experience and/or insight would enable you to effectively discharge each responsibility?

    If elected, think ahead to the end of your 4-year term. If you could initiate ONE significant change, what would it be — in the Minneapolis Police Department? In doubling the availability of affordable housing? In ending homelessness?

    Do you think city bar owners should be held accountable for their drunk and disorderly patrons? If yes, how? If no, why? Do you think violence connected to downtown bar closings would lessen if a law required bars to close earlier, perhaps at midnight instead of 2am?

    How do you view the Mayor’s relationship with the City Council? Would you approach that role differently from previous city mayors? If yes, how?

    What is your strongest single qualification for the mayor’s job? What is your corresponding weakness related to the job?

    The current Mayor has a staff of 12: a Policy Director, five Policy Aides, two communications staff, two office associates, a Chief and Deputy Chief of Staff . If elected, would you retain the same staffing structure? If not, how would you change it and why?

    Re: All Answers. Prioritize your ideas, be realistic and be specific. No campaign literature language. No pie in the sky. No self-aggrandizing. No bloviating.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/26/2017 - 06:41 am.

    Personal stuff

    I don’t pay much attention to the personal qualities of the candidates I vote for or against. They are almost totally irrelevant. What does matter is the party they belong to, and which party will control each house of the legislature.

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