No Knowledge Required

I was driving to the gym this morning behind an obnoxiously huge SUV sporting a bumper sticker that said “Greg Ballard. Leadership in Action.”

Now, I realize there’s a campaign underway, and that political operatives produce these slogans. I’ve run for office, so I also know that candidates are very tempted to believe their own hype. But all I could think of after reading that bumper sticker was how carelessly we throw words around and how little we value knowledge and expertise.

My personal evaluation of Greg Ballard’s term in office is that he has been anything but a leader, at least as I would define that term. But what’s worse, he has exemplified the widespread belief that you really don’t have to know anything in order to be a public official–a Mayor or Governor or Senator. (Sarah Palin considers it an absolute virtue to be clueless–she ran for Vice President sneering at “elitists” who went to “fancy schools” and I don’t remember anyone calling her out on that particular charge.)

I teach public administration, so I’m pretty touchy about the notion that anyone who’s run a business or led a marine division can run a city. We don’t choose doctors who didn’t bother with medical school, or lawyers who failed the bar exam. We don’t let people drive until they can demonstrate they know how to operate a vehicle. But we make it a political virtue not to understand the differences between public and private finance, be familiar with the tools needed for economic development, or aware of best and worst practices in areas like zoning and transit and public safety.

Greg Ballard is what happens when we elect someone Mayor just because he seems like a pleasant fellow, and showed “leadership” by being a Marine.


  1. Well, in retrospect, it appears that Mayor Ballard’s Marine career was that of a competent overseer of clerks and perhaps a competent organizer, but one that lacked the spark needed for further advancement.

    Nothing wrong with that, per se, but he hit a ceiling in the Marine Corps that we allowed him to break by becoming Mayor. Now, it looks like the Marine Corps was right and that we should have paid closer attention to their assessment.

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