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

Unfortunately, campaigns are controlled by the candidates, not by the future employers and often the results are not to our benefit.

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

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?

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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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