Go Local

Susan Estrich

These days, when I go out to eat or shop at my local market, signs everywhere proclaim that the food I'm eating or buying is locally grown. This is, of course, easier in California and doesn't, obviously, apply to everything. Still, the advantages of the "local" label go beyond freshness. Maybe it's silly, but I feel good supporting the hardworking farmers in the place I live.

The same, I would suggest to you, is true about politics.

Unless I'm doing it professionally (in print or on television), I try very hard — not always successfully — to avoid casual conversations about politics. In the past, I've always considered the lady in the supermarket line or the man who does my hair or the gal in the dressing room to be a valuable source of information. Similarly, some years ago (after the legendary Lee Atwater advised me that I had a future in talk radio, and that it was the most valuable training for high-level politics), I used to rely on my audience as an invaluable sounding board. If I couldn't convince them, and they liked me enough to listen, maybe I should rethink my argument.

Regrettably, I don't do talk radio anymore. My old station is now heavily conservative, big shock. But these days, I don't need an audience — even a generally moderate one — to tell me which way the wind is blowing. I'm pretty sure what the lady in the supermarket line will say, and I know for a fact what my hairdresser and most of my fellow bargain shoppers are thinking.

They're disappointed. They're angry. Across the spectrum, from conservatives to liberals, they are disgusted with politics.

Believe me, the politicians know that, too. Watch President Obama hit the road and blame Washington for not moving forward on jobs and the deficit. Watch professional politician Rick Perry run against those do-nothing professional politicians. Watch longtime insider Mitt Romney (the son of a governor, the founder of a major firm) run as an outsider.

My advice isn't for them. It isn't about positioning. It's about real-life politics.

Go local. Look around your city or town, your county, even your state. What's your passion? What should Washington be doing, but isn't? I used to think I would spend my life in Washington changing the world. These days, I'm pretty sure I'll never end up living in Washington again, which doesn't mean I've given up on politics. I've just changed my focus to issues on which I can really make a difference.

Steve Barr worked for me as an advance man in the 1988 campaign (and will never let me forget how he was stranded on the ground that summer after Gov. Dukakis decided to cancel his post-convention victory tour and go back to Boston to deal with budget matters) and then decided he'd pretty much had it with national campaigns. He went back to California and founded Green Dot Public Schools, aimed at proving that with a decentralized approach, parental involvement, high expectations and real support for teachers (yes, we have a union, but no tenure), you really could educate the kids our public schools were failing. I joined the board of directors. Other than my work with the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston, it is the most satisfying "politics" I do.

With 17 schools under our belt, including a successful turnaround of the worst high school in Los Angeles, Steve and a group of old-timers from the board have now split off to form a new organization, Future is Now Schools, aimed at using our turnaround model to change already existing (and failing) public schools. One charter school at a time, some better than others, will not itself change public education in America. We are working with Randi Weingarten, the visionary president of the American Federation of Teachers, to do it. Yes, we get help on occasion from the Education Department, but most of what we do is, in a word, local. It depends on local support, local involvement and, yes, local politics.

I don't know how to change Washington. I'm not sure anyone does. But I know something about what it takes to turn around a high school. I know how to work locally. And at the end of the day, I feel like I might actually be making a difference. Which is a whole lot different from the way lots of folks in D.C. are feeling these days.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.