Fellow Aberdeen arguer Colter Hawk Heirigs asks a ponder-worthy question: what is the definition of “career politician”? And does Congresswoman Kristi Noem meet that definition?
Back in 2010, then four-year state Rep. Kristi Noem ran a campaign rallying against “career politicians” when she took on Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, who Noem identified as a “career politician.”
In 2010, Herseth-Sandlin had only held office for six years, as she was first elected in a special election in June of 2004.
Five years later, the year is now 2015 and Noem is now on her ninth year of her own career in politics, exceeding Herseth-Sandlin’s own tenure by four years come election day 2016 [Colter Hawk Heirigs, letter to the editor, that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.08.12].
For the record, back in 2010, candidate Noem appeared to define “career” as “one decade” when she vowed to serve no more than ten years in Washington. That vow lost its explicit edge during Rep. Noem’s very first term in Washington. But let’s not look to Kristi Noem for linguistic clarity.
Let’s look at career and politician separately. I can’t think of a good rule for a minimum time to qualify as a career, though I get the sense one can change jobs dozens of times but change careers only once, maybe twice in a lifetime. Whatever the timeframe, we usually use career in a positive way. We give parties and gold watches to folks for lengthy careers. We appreciate anyone who does good work, but we extend more admiration to people who commit to a profession for a lifetime. Our experience suggests that the longer one does a job, the more one can learn and the better one can perform that job. Absent other evidence, a longer career suggests greater skill, accomplishment, and reliability.
Career only turns negative when it modifies some objectionable professional commitment, like career criminal… or, in popular parlance, career politician. And it only turns negative at our political convenience: Karl Mundt represented South Dakota in Washington for over thirty years. Tom Daschle did that work for 26 years. John Thune has done that work for seventeen years and did political work of other forms for another decade before that. Various parties may bash Mundt, Daschle, and Thune for the quality of their work, but the length of their public service to South Dakota does not in itself seem a bad thing.
I know that the folks I approach with petitions who say, “Oh, I’m not a politician” aren’t thinking about Aristotle. But harkening to the Greek origin of the word, politician should refer to anyone engaged in the art of crafting and maintaining the laws that govern the polis, the community. In a democracy, that’s everybody, including those of us who circulate petitions and those of you who sign them. In a democracy, denigrating politicians means denigrating ourselves and our democratic ideals. For democracy to work, we must view politics as a noble and necessary calling, not a dirty word. We all must make politics part of our careers, and we should admire politicians who commit to the intelligent study and practice of statecraft.
Heirigs isn’t using career politician to undermine democracy. He’s holding Kristi Noem accountable for doing that in 2010 against a career politician whose longevity in Washington she now seeks to surpass.