ICAS Summer Symposium

No. 2002-0810-NoW

Civic Duty and Good Citizenship

Nora Winkelman

Summer 2002 ICAS Symposium

August 10, 2002 11:00 - 6:00 PM
Calvary Vision Community Center, 550 Township Line Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Nora Winkelman

Civic Duty and Good Citizenship

Nora Winkelman
Vice President
Montgomery County Democratic Committee

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. My name is Nora Winkelman. I am the newly elected First Vice Chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee. I am also in my 6th year as Chair of the Democratic Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth. I have run for political office and I have worked on a number of campaigns. In short, I am a political junkie - Democratic politics, in particular, is my passion. However, whether you are a registered Democrat or Republican or even a Libertarian or Independent, I believe it is incumbent upon every good citizen to get involved in the political process. Groups and communities of people that have the same interests and concerns - whether it's Women, African Americans, Korean Americans, etc. - benefit tremendously when they are given a seat at the legislative table and are able to influence the laws that govern their everyday lives. And, what benefits these groups and communities is bound to benefit society as a whole as they begin to feel as though they have more of a stake in their community and their government.

The ultimate involvement for anyone, obviously, is to run for political office. Political candidates are truly a special breed. How many people do you know would put their careers on hold, disappear from their family and friends for 9 months or more (except when it's time to ask for money, of course) and log miles and miles walking door to door to talk to total strangers - all for the hope of being elected to a job that, with any luck, will pay the same salary they were receiving from their first job out of college 15 or 20 years before? Men and women who are willing to make this kind of sacrifice for a cause or for issues that they believe in are the bedrock of our political system. Whether it's fighting for stricter gun laws - or for the right to carry guns; for the right of women to make reproductive choices - or for the rights of unborn children; for the preservation of open space - or for an individual's unfettered right to develop his or her own property - our representative form of government gives political candidates of every persuasion the unique opportunity to make a difference in their State, their Township and their Community.

Running for political office, however, is not for everyone. It takes a lot of hard work and, unfortunately these days, an ability to raise (and the willingness to spend) a fair amount of money. Getting involved in the campaign of someone you believe in can be just as effective. Whether it's raising money, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors, or making phone calls, all of us can make a difference by volunteering for a candidate of our choice. And there is more than these seemingly mundane tasks that we can do - candidates know that to be successful they have to learn how to connect with voters and speak to the issues that concern them. Working with a candidate on forming policies and issues that will be important in a campaign - especially with respect to issues that are unique to a certain group or community - can be enormously worthwhile and personally satisfying.

Participation in your own local government by attending Township Supervisor and School Board meetings is another, and perhaps less time-consuming, way to get involved politically. There is in Pennsylvania - and I assume in most states - what is known as the Sunshine Law, which means that the conduct of business by elected officials, with a few exceptions, must be open to the public. Everyone is invited to attend and, depending upon the rules of a particular governing body, may participate by asking questions, bringing issues to the attention of the board and by commenting upon ordinances, rules and regulations that are about to be passed or adopted. You would be surprised at the small number of people who take advantage of this opportunity to interact with the people they have elected to run their cities, towns and boroughs - even more shocking when you consider that most of these governing bodies have the authority to institute and raise taxes! Call your Township or Borough office and find out when and where their meetings are held and make it a point to attend - if not every meeting, at least every other. In some Townships, these meetings are televised on the local cable network and, when attendance in person is not possible, this is a good way of keeping up with what is going on. However, there is nothing like sitting in the audience and looking your elected officials in the eye or actually asking them pertinent questions about issues that come before them. And, for the most part, our elected officials relish this type of interaction with residents - after all, it's really just an extension of the effort they made during their campaigns to reach out to voters and talk to them about their concerns and their hopes for their communities.

Finally, those of us who are lucky enough to live in a democracy have the privilege of being able to elect our leaders. Unfortunately, this precious right is exercised in this country by an appallingly small number of people. The first thing I ask someone who is always complaining about an elected official is whether they vote - most of the time, these folks aren't even registered to vote! According to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate 1, the United States is among the lowest participating democracies of any in the world! Since 1960, the Committee says, voter participation in Presidential elections has fallen more than 25%. As a result, 25 million Americans who used to vote no longer do so. What this means, of course, is that the election of our leaders and the course of our government - whether on a national or local level - now tend to be in the hands of a relatively small universe of people. While I certainly am not suggesting that this is a good thing - and would definitely not like to see this trend continue - think of what it means for particular groups or communities who are able to mobilize their constituents to come out to vote for a particular candidate or to support a referendum. The impact they can have on the outcome of an election is huge. Moreover, you only need to look to the last Presidential election for confirmation that your vote really does count. Or, I am sure many of you remember Joe Hoeffel's 1998 bid for Congress against Jon Fox when Hoeffel lost by only 84 votes - or when Fox only won by 84 votes, depending upon your point of view! In either case, that was one election many of us probably participated in where every vote made a difference.

So, whether you have aspirations of running for office, have the time and energy to work on a political campaign, go to Supervisors meetings or merely take the time twice a year to exercise your right to vote, participating in the political process should be an important part of every citizen's life.

1 A 20-year old Washington-based non-partisan non-profit research institution affiliated with the Graduate School of Political Management of the George Washington University, the Committee focuses primarily on issues surrounding citizen engagement in politics (go to http://www.gspm.org).

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants
Summer 2002