Hensley: The last two years, the pandemic and the role of elected officials

·5 min read

One of the questions I wrestle with almost every day is how much oxygen and attention do certain perspectives deserve? The goal is to try and give as many as possible their say, especially on these pages, which I tend to believe are fairly well read.

The more voices, the better. The more perspectives, the better informed the dialogue. That’s been my belief for a long time and comes from watching some talented people care for the local opinion pages through the years.

Doug Hensley
Doug Hensley

Now, though, when someone’s opinion appears to be out of step with prevailing orthodoxy, we get the blame. It comes with the territory, and it’s always been that way to some extent. That said, my personal belief it is our responsibility to publish unpopular (not hateful) opinions because it seems there is always something to be gained from clearly labeled personal opinions seeing the light of day.

Of course, just in the past few years, I’ve gotten more than a few calls, notes and letters from people who start the conversation thusly: “This is a conservative part of the country…”

You’ll get no argument from me on that, but that still shouldn’t mean we give zero currency to thoughts and opinions that differ from our own. I am often reminded of the thoughtful counsel Monsignor David Cruz offered once: “There is wisdom in opposition.”

What that means is those who have a different point of view arrived there as a result of their own meaningful process. I have friends who see the world completely different than I do. We don’t agree on a variety of topics, but we respect and understand how each other came to feel the way we do. Their perspectives, even the ones I disagree with, have enriched me and given me something to think about. I hate to think where I might be personal growth wise, had our paths never crossed.

It’s with all of that in mind that I’ve been turning over a lot of conversations about elected officials at all levels. Is there a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with current officeholders? Or does a relatively small, extremely vocal, group just have a megaphone that makes their viewpoint seem more pervasive than it really is?

For now, I’m not sure. I’ve heard from people who make good cases for each side. One thing for certain: the pandemic has had a lasting impact on the perception of how well elected officials did their jobs. Whether we’re talking about Gov. Greg Abbott, county judges or city council members, there is a swath of people unhappy about the recent role of local government in their lives.

Of course, some of this is hindsight, and let’s be truthful here: No matter what course of action someone chose to take in those early days of the pandemic, about half of the people were going to say it was the wrong choice. Virtually every aspect of the pandemic was politicized, and one of the consistently voiced complaints says officials “lost touch” with the people.

There is probably some truth in that, if we’re talking about the first several months of the pandemic. During those times, people were told to stay home. For the most part, they had no place to go. It was a time unlike anything previously experienced. No one had a roadmap for what to do.

Unfortunately, some of those decisions, such as shuttering so-called “non-essential” businesses, had a direct impact on the livelihood of working people and their families. Some looked around and saw “essential” businesses open, but couldn’t see the difference between those operations and their own. As a result, scores of local businesses failed. Most will never come back, and their owners may feel like they never received an adequate explanation ahead of time or a sympathetic recognition of their loss afterward. And stimulus money will only go so far when trying to rebuild.

Recently complicating those perceptions are soaring home appraisals across the state that have homeowners somewhere between angry and apoplectic. They are looking for someone to blame, and in some cases, they are looking at their elected leaders, fairly or unfairly.

As a result, over these past two years, opposition has mobilized. What are they against? Maybe only what local officials are for. That could be part of why we saw the streets and roads bond election fail in Lubbock and the past three bond elections (two from the city, one from the Amarillo ISD) rejected in Amarillo. By the way, the issues those bonds would have addressed are not going away. They will only become more pronounced as time marches on, but that’s a column for another day.

If the COVID-19 pandemic is at last receding as it appears, we have a template for when, not if, the next one comes along. Perhaps elected leaders might do some things differently as a result of the previous experience. Then again, maybe not.

I would imagine just about anyone who has held elected office anywhere since March 2020 would tell you that trying to curb the worst pandemic in 100 years wasn’t what they signed up for. Critics might say holding elected office is a privilege granted by the people who vote for a person, and their expectation is their views and beliefs be represented, regardless of what might come along. When enough of them feel like that isn’t the case, election results will always tell (and often change) the story.

I think elected officeholders would also tell you they did the absolute best they could for the communities and constituencies they serve. If they lost touch, as some claim, it was more a result of circumstances than design.

Regardless, there’s probably a cautionary tale here for elected officials. More people are paying attention to how they are governed than ever before.

That is a good thing … for them and for us.

Doug Hensley is associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Avalanche-Journal.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Doug Hensley the last two years, pandemic, role of elected officials