Remember in the ‘gotcha’ moments there are people behind the headlines

Michael Ertel_Ralph Northam

Warning: If you’re looking for hard-hitting political commentary this isn’t the post you’re going to find here today. I’ve been working on this post for several weeks and can’t seem to get it quite right so I’m publishing as is. There will be some that condemn me for what I’m about to say, but I’d rather be condemned for saying what I think than be silent and let my point go unsaid.

First let me start with a cringe-worthy admission: There was a time I, for lack of a better way to say it, was starstruck by those in politics. It’s embarrassing I know. I was an undergraduate student at Florida State University when Tallahassee, Fla. was suddenly overrun with media covering Bush v. Gore. I just couldn’t ignore the national drama playing out of the first election I was able to vote in. I found myself mesmerized by national political figures and even some statewide elected officials who had a strong media presence. I was hooked. I readily admit I realize how strange that was.

Now on to my point. Based on national polling, it seems abundantly clear most people don’t trust or like politicians on the whole, but here’s something that’s often forgotten: their career choice doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, automatically define them. From legislators to lobbyists, those who hold or run for elected office and those who work for them and their campaigns, it seems everyone in politics is a walking target for condemnation by some.

Over the last decade, I’ve come to meet some of those same figures I once watched in awe in person. I went on to work for Katherine Harris the Secretary of State at the center of the 2000 storm that got my attention. There are many other political icons I’ve not met, but have come to know through the eyes of friends who know or have worked with them.

As simple and as cheesy as it sounds, politicians and those of us who choose a life in politics are more than the office they hold, or the role they serve: they are people too. They have personal lives of their own; they have families and friends. Their lives aren’t unlike the rest of ours; they simply chose to step into a career field that frequently puts the spotlight on them and their actions, giving their opponents an opportunity, if not an invitation, to magnify their flaws, faults, and mistakes. Many inside and outside of politics delight in the public humiliation and takedown of others regardless of circumstances political, personal, scandal or error, new or old.

Where’s our humanity? Have we lost it? Have we forgotten the human experience will always include mistakes, ignorance, growth, and challenges? I know I have made my fair share of mistakes. As a matter of fact, I’ve probably made about three people’s fair share. This is why I feel so strongly we need to remember not every mistake someone makes, should be a career-ending or life-altering one. In most cases, we should take into account more than a moment in time or a bad decision. We should look at who the person is now and how they feel and express their sincere remorse regarding their actions.

Of course, there are disqualifying behaviors — statements or beliefs that should render one unfit for office. But where do we draw the line? Recently, two politicians faced similar media coverage and outrage over old photographs emerged of them in black-face. My feelings are that each situation is completely different, as are the outcomes I would have hoped for.

First, Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, a Republican and a man I’ve met several times and have followed on social media for several years, found himself in the center of controversy when a photograph of him appeared. He quickly resigned his position and gave one of the most sincere apologies.

Then the Virginia governor’s yearbook page from college came out. This is a man, Ralph Northam, that I’ve never met and he has bungled his reaction to the discovery for several weeks while still holding onto his job.

Here’s the thing: people who know Michael know him to be a good man. I know enough of him and we have enough mutual friends that I feel strongly he is indeed a good man who made a mistake. I don’t believe that moment in time defines him or his core beliefs. I don’t believe he is a racist or that his actions that day in the past would speak to his character today. I believe his record of fairness and professionalism in his prior role as an election’s supervisor speaks to the fact he was a good choice for secretary of state and he would have served the governor and the state well.

Here’s the part that will get me in trouble: I don’t believe that the state is better off for Ertel’s resignation, nor do I believe any kind of justice was served by the public demands for it.

I hate the game of “gotcha.” It has ruined lives and careers and I’ve seen it happen again and again over the years in politics and it makes me sick. Yes, our elected officials need to be held to a higher standard. And yes, there’s no room for racists or bigots in politics, but not everyone who does something ignorant or insensitive is a hateful racist.

I saw a headline about the furor in Virginia dying down. Yet Northam is still holding onto his position while refusing to give full answers, refusing to take responsibility, and refusing to show true remorse. That is a problem. I don’t know if his behavior was a once-off like Ertel’s seems to be, or if it was a trend and part of a larger issue, but I do know he doesn’t deserve to hold his position while withholding answer to tough questions and refusing to own up to the truth. I believe that there’s a larger issue at play true as much for his behavior present today as it was the day he chose his yearbook photos he thinks the rules of civility don’t matter to him.

Giving grace and forgiveness takes a lot more work than expressing anger, but at the end of the day, there’s a time and place for everyone — even those in politics to warrant it. I look forward to seeing where Ertel ends up and hope that we all get tired of watching good people be taken down the way he was.