More political mavericks needed

Good for Phil Remke! And good for Fred Marsh, Terry Weigel, Shane Mallett, Gary Kestner, Joe Manchin and public officials like them.

Politics often is a go-along-to-get-along situation. Because most people don’t like confrontations and unpleasantness, they don’t rock the boat.

Sometimes that means that at local government meetings, elected officials don’t ask questions they should because it’s clear to them most of those around them have made up their minds. Sometimes it means that officials who talk to the press – and thus, to their constituents – are ostracized. Most people in government, elected or not, would prefer those pesky reporters just go away. When one of their number breaks the vow of silence, they don’t like it.

Remke, who is up for re-election as a Moundsville city councilman, told our reporter this week that some of his fellow council members would like it if he lost the November election. “They are concerned with the way I handle things,” he added.

I don’t know much about Remke, or whether I would agree with his views on city government. That’s between him and voters. They know (or should) whether he has represented them well.

But Remke seems to be an example of a rare breed in politics at any level – the gadfly, or maverick. He handles his public duties as he sees fit, not in a manner calculated to avoid making waves.

So do Weirton councilmen Marsh and Weigel, who voted against a business and occupation tax approved this week.

So do Ohio County Board of Education members Mallett and Kestner, who earlier this year questioned whether the school system should reduce property taxes a bit.

And so does Manchin, who views his duty in the U.S. Senate as representing West Virginians, not going along with leaders of his Democrat Party.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I know of occasions on which I’ve disagreed strongly with some of the men listed above. I’ve known of others like them in local and state government who, if matters had been left up to me, would have been voted out of office.

I recall one local official, many years ago, who frequently objected to plans everyone else on the public body in question had been convinced to support. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the guy. About 95 percent of the time, I thought he was dead wrong. I had to agree with critics who suggested he was a little crazy.

But if he hadn’t constituted a loyal opposition, there wouldn’t have been one. That can be very dangerous when the public’s business is being handled.

Every public body ought to include at least one gadfly, a maverick not afraid to ask the school superintendent questions, vote against the mayor’s wishes or tell leaders of his political party they’re dead wrong. Otherwise, the deliberative government most people assume exists is a bad joke. It becomes a bandwagon, going where the most popular, powerful or charismatic leader dictates.

Being a maverick comes with a cost. That can range from not getting out of a council meeting before midnight because you kept asking questions to losing old friends. Once, years ago, I was at a public meeting where one maverick got on another official’s nerves so much that there was talk of settling their dispute out on the street.

At Manchin’s level, the pressure to conform is much, much worse. When you buck your party, especially if it controls the Senate and the White House, the consequences can be severe.

They also can be personal, in the form of people who no longer invite you to parties and avoid sitting at your table in the lunchroom or occasionally say nasty things about you in your hearing.

Manchin has served West Virginians – and many other Americans – very well by being a maverick.

“Gridlock” in Congress is condemned by virtually everyone. Not me. Would we prefer a smoothly functioning Congress in which everything proposed by the White House was approved with a minimum of fuss?

Two words for you: Iraq and Obamacare. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough mavericks.

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at