Photo by n0nick on Flickr.

Reacting to Fiona Grieg’s dropping out of the Ward 2 DC Council race this morning, many of you said things like, “Politics isn’t for faint of heart,” or “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Those people are absolutely correct; that’s how politics works. Greig should have known that. In fact, she did; I talked to some of her supporters who said they warned her about this very eventuality. The fact that she still wasn’t prepared is indeed disappointing.

It’s easy to blame Greig. She certainly made mistakes. Or people can blame Jack Evans for running a rough campaign. But we should do neither. The problem is that voters, especially Democratic voters, expect the moon from candidates who can never live up to expectations.

A good candidate must have all of these qualities at the same time:

  • Ability to talk like a think tank expert about any policy issue;
  • The right positions as viewed by every different issue group they court;
  • Charisma so that voters “want to have a beer with” the candidate;
  • Stamina to talk to voters nonstop, all day, every day for months, and politely listen to everyone no matter how crazy;
  • Toughness to endure all manner of nasty treatment from opponents and voters;
  • Willingness to ask for money, which if you’ve never done you can’t possibly realize how hard it is;
  • Expert management skills to hire a terrific team cheaply in just a few months;
  • An absolutely squeaky-clean background;
  • And much more.

If a candidate doesn’t have one of these, we blame the candidate. They ran a lousy campaign. We just didn’t like them personally. They don’t know enough about the issues. Every candidate has a thousand ways to be a doofus.

With this set of expectations, it should come as no surprise that we get a fair number of candidates with particularly strong personal desire to acquire power. Those with ambition but who don’t care so much about making the world better can survive this process and learn to sound caring enough about issues to get by on the issues, while most of those more motivated by love of their city find another career.

If winning is about being a good candidate, then the leaders we get are good candidates rather than good leaders. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of a system that rewards the toughest and most ambitious, rewards those who actually have the best visions for the future? But that’s a pipe dream.

It’s important to be tough, not just to win office but to pass important legislation once in power. The attacks won’t stop with the campaign, but continue into the policy debates. And leaders who take poor positions absolutely need to face criticism for those actions.

The campaign filing dustup only told us what we already knew about Greig, that she was a fairly inexperienced newcomer facing a seasoned veteran. Her dropping out did tell us something new, that she lacked at least one of the qualities we expect in a great candidate, the toughness.

We learned in this spring’s special election that Sekou Biddle lacked the management component, at least at the time; Bryan Weaver lacked the fundraising capacity, Joshua Lopez lacked the policy expertise, and so on.

But ask yourself: Do you have all of these qualities? Do you have even half of them? And how many people have them all? Maybe Vincent Orange did; all he lacked was an interest in helping anyone but himself.

I think that a lot of the incumbents on today’s DC Council ought to be replaced. A lot of people think that. This past summer, many people said to me, individually or in groups, that they were looking around for people to run for various offices. I’ve heard secondhand about many others searching for the same thing.

And in most cases, they came up short. Many names that had been thrown around as fantastic potential candidates didn’t run. Some did, and as we get to know the candidates, we’ll find out if any of them are really exciting, or all fall victim to one of the many pitfalls of a campaign, or get written off too early by the horse-race press coverage.

This is the reality of politics. Everyone knows it, and those that don’t quickly learn. It’s often a choice between the lesser of two evils. Often, if there’s someone you’re extremely excited about, they’re a long-shot candidate because they don’t excel in every one of the necessary criteria.

The main reason I’m particularly a fan of Tommy Wells is that he actually does have most of these qualities, at least in moderate measure. He’s extremely good on policy, but also able to go to a community meeting or church or block party and mingle with everyone without quickly getting sick of it. He’s pretty likable, but also fairly tough. He has hired some great staff. And so on.

He represents one of the best opportunities to get a politician who really cares about making better communities in DC, and can actually win elections as necessary to accomplish important things.

How many people can do that, and want to? We need more of them. At least 14: one per ward, 4 at-large, one chairman, and one mayor. Not to mention 436 representatives, 100 senators, 1 vice-president, 1 president, and countless state and local legislators all across the country. Where are they?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.