The future of America does not hinge on the outcome of this August's primary election for tax collector in Seminole County, Florida. But then again, maybe in a way it does. "As they say," Seminole County Tax Collector Ray Valdes wrote to the Orlando Sentinel in 1989, "a walk of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Tax Collector Ray Valdes went on to say much more in his letter to the newspaper:
When he wrote that letter, Ray Valdes had been in office for 90 days. Today, he's been in office for 16 years and is running to up that to 20.
No doubt that over time, Valdes, like many others, found the benefits of office quite enjoyable. In 1997, he sent a meandering two-page memorandum to the acting county manager, explaining the differences between legislative officials and administrative officials and how he sincerely didn't think anyone would want to term-limit administrative careerists like him.
Valdes concluded: "I could perhaps agree that 20 years is a sufficient time frame and 'term limit' for an administrative constitutional officer." And then he added a handwritten note: "I oppose changing the county charter to create term limits for any elected office."
Back in 1989, Valdes was full of the enthusiasm and spirit that animate all great human endeavors. I'll let you quietly say to yourself what he's full of now.
What Can Be Done?
Voters too often have no real choice. Politicians have so gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts that the vast majority of incumbents need not fear a general election challenge. In primary elections, the party apparatus holds significant sway, especially in discouraging the most formidable challengers. Voters are then forced to either keep an unattractive incumbent of their own party or to vote for a candidate, flawed or not, with policy positions they find repugnant.
And then there are all the other incumbent advantages from name recognition to fundraising leverage, which make challenging an incumbent anything but a fair fight.
In my free Common Sense e-letter, I applaud those who limit their terms in office voluntarily and keep their word. Most who have made such pledges have kept them, but too many have not. Leaders like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake and former Oklahoma Congressman Tom Coburn have shown what committed and true representatives of the people can do in a limited time frame.
But as a strategy to term-limit Congress, self-imposed limits fail because voters ? in all but a dozen or so congressional districts ? do not have the effective choice at the polls with which to enforce voluntary limits by dumping incumbent violators.
Yet, at least this time, in solidly Republican Seminole County, Florida, Republican voters will have a clear choice. That's because Valdes, after not being challenged even once since his first election 16 years ago, now faces a formidable challenger, a challenger who stands in very stark contrast to Ray Valdes.
The Real Thing
Grant Maloy is a Seminole County commissioner. Eight years ago he ran on a pledge to serve no more than two terms, or eight years. Maloy signed the "Contract with the County," a platform that called for term limits and giving voters referendum power over any new tax, tax increase, public borrowing or pay raise for commissioners.
Maloy is keeping his word and stepping down from office ? the first commissioner to step down voluntarily in twelve years. He's pleased to see the competition to fill his office, telling me that
When there is an open seat you see many more people running for the office. An example is the seat that I am leaving. Five Republicans are running for commissioner. I can't recall when that many have run for a commission seat. In Seminole County, about half of the incumbents are reelected without any opposition.
Grant Maloy decided to challenge Valdes to change the ethical standards of the tax collection office. Valdes has been criticized because he and his family have purchased land being auctioned for back taxes at well below market value. Valdes's relatives have also purchased certificates that earn interest on delinquent taxes.
If elected, Maloy pledges a new policy for the tax collection office, barring the tax collector and all employees from purchasing certificates or deeds.
I'm not a Seminole County citizen and may not grasp all the various issues from my distant perch. But the difference in character between these two aspirants for public office is so clear and bright as to be visible from a very great distance.