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    A Times Editorial

    Elections do matter

    Last September's tragedies reminded us of the importance of government and of the public's making itself heard at the polls.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 8, 2002

    When the twin towers collapsed and thousands of our fellow citizens lost their lives, Americans learned of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and an oppressive military regime called the Taliban. We learned that women in Afghanistan, home to bin Laden's terrorist network, were forbidden to work, that men could not shave, that televisions and radios were banned. We learned that people under military rule were flogged, mutilated and killed in public ceremonies.

    We also were confronted, abruptly, with the celebration of our loss by some people who hated us, in part, because we believe in individual freedom and a secular democracy.

    These images are with us a year later, as we commemorate 9/11, and they are relevant to the democratic exercise in which we will engage on Tuesday. In Florida, Tuesday is an Election Day. The Democrats will pick someone to challenge Jeb Bush for governor, and both political parties are trying to find someone to succeed Attorney General Bob Butterworth. County voters will pick legislators, judges, county commissioners and school board members.

    Given the money, the meanness and the oversimplification of modern political campaigns, it is easy for Americans to view elections with cynicism. This year certainly provides enough examples. Mary Barley, a distinguished environmentalist, has cheapened her campaign with flimsy claims about her qualifying signature and with the way she trivializes agricultural issues while running for the job of state agriculture commissioner. Tiffany Todd-Ciminera, a 24-year-old nurse with no experience in Pinellas education, is so determined to capitalize on her family's political connections that she is borrowing her mother's campaign contributors and using her family name (Todd) on the ballot. Gov. Bush is so eager to avoid a serious challenge that Republicans are already airing commercials branding Tampa attorney Bill McBride as "reckless" in his management of the state's largest law firm -- a charge so contrary to the demonstrated record that it should itself be called reckless. In Pinellas, both the Republican and Democratic parties have weighed into the nonpartisan School Board races, through mailings and contributions, in a way that is contrary to the constitutional amendment voters adopted requiring parties to stay out.

    Yes, there continues to be something tawdry about election campaigns, but the less-than-democratic alternatives are certainly worse. And every election does bring its inspiring moments.

    McBride, the son of blue-collar workers, is a decorated Marine who fought for his country in Vietnam and worked his way through college and law school. He joined and then rose to lead Holland & Knight, the state's top law firm, and help turn its attention to pro bono work and civic commitment. He is a political newcomer who was 30 points down in the polls as recently as June and may now be poised to become the Democratic nominee -- and all through the course of a primary campaign so graceful that politicos often complained of boredom.

    One thing 9/11 does teach us is that government matters, that firefighters and police officers and soldiers can lose their lives in service to the rest of us. That's why, in a democracy, days like Tuesday matter so much. To all our public servants, including librarians and lifeguards and schoolteachers, we owe the debt of electing people who care. We have the responsibility to elect people who believe government is a source of our collective strength, not an obstacle in our lives, and that it can help us solve problems together. In reality, the cynicism that attends our modern politics is born largely of contempt for our government, and 9/11 showed us how tragically misguided that is.

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