Politicians should be public servants first - Clay Wilson

"I don't understand why anyone would run for any kind of political office," said a colleague the other day.

My co-worker's point was that people who run for office subject themselves to all kinds of scrutiny: from the press, from the public, from their political enemies.

If one has skeletons in his closet, he can be pretty sure that if he becomes a candidate – especially for a high-profile office – then somehow they'll come rattling out into the light.

Not only that, but once elected, his decisions will be constantly second-guessed by pundits and armchair politicians; and his every peccadillo will become potential public fare.

So, why would someone subject himself to this kind of pressure?

Before I became a reporter, my view on the subject was colored by the cynicism about politicians that pervades the nation's public attitudes.

I assumed that all politicians were either: a) driven by a mad lust for power; b) intent on getting as many perks as the political world has to offer; c) seduced by the lure of bribes, kickbacks and other forms of corruption; or d) all of the above.

But once I got into a business in which I frequently have occasion to observe those in public office, I realized that some of them – dare I say the majority of them – are motivated by something else: a genuine desire to serve their community, their state or their nation.

For some, even, holding political office is about simply serving their fellow human beings. Sometimes we forget, I think, that our elected officials are ultimately (supposed to be) public servants.

No one gets rich from being in politics – at least, not if he keeps his hands truly clean. The chairman of the Henry County Commission still gets a salary of about $59,000 per year. Georgia state legislators gets a salary of $16,200 per year.

Even the president of the United States gets a salary of only $400,000 per year. I realize that sounds like a lot to the average citizen, but when one realizes that according to the AFL-CIO (citing the New York Times), the average CEO of a major company received $9.3 million last year, $400,000 seems quite paltry.

One reason, I suppose, that I have developed more sympathy for politicians is that I have gotten just a small taste of the kind of work they do once they get into office.

My eyes sometimes glaze over and my mind wanders to anywhere-but-here when I'm poring over legal or technical documents for a story. But city council members, county commissioners and other government officials get reams of this paperwork, and if they take their positions seriously they at least try to glance over most of it.

Then there are the hours-long meetings that would make an estate-planning seminar look like a Mardi Gras parade, in terms of excitement.

And time and time again, I have heard stories of public officials demonstrating genuine concern for improving people's lives. From paying the utility bill of a struggling senior citizen out of their own pockets to brokering donations for schools from local businesses, these are examples of public servants truly serving.

That's not to say, of course, that the nation doesn't have its share of corrupt politicians. For every citizen who has a heart-warming tale, I could probably dig up another who has a horror story.

And since the press is expected to be a government watchdog, readers will probably see more of the latter.

Still, I'd just like to say for the record to all those officials out there who are doing their best to serve the public that I respect and appreciate what they're doing.

I may ask them annoying, even perhaps offensive questions sometimes, but if I do, I hope they will remember that I'm just trying to serve the public, too.

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.