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A loser at the ballot box, but the experience made him a winner

Fresh off losing a race for Mecklenburg County Commissioner by a mere 0.3 percent of the vote, it would be easy to think election night was the low point of my first campaign for public office.  But you’d be wrong. The low point came much sooner than that, and from an unexpected source: fellow lawyers.

When I spoke to lawyers on the campaign trail, for many of them their first question was, “Have you lost your mind?”  For me, this was the low point. For one reason or another, lawyers, who once made up a large percentage of those serving in public office, have stop running — or at least, stopped getting elected.

At last look, 16 of 50 state senators, 22 of 120 state representatives, 3 of 9 Mecklenburg County commissioners, 1 of 11 Charlotte city council members, and 1 of 7 Wake County commissioners possess law degrees.  And the one lawyer on the Wake County Commission is a practicing pharmacist.

There is certainly no case to be made that all elected officials, in order to be representative, should be members of the bar.  But don’t our makeup and our background make us at least good candidates for the position?  It seems 95 percent of the lawyers I have interviewed for a job have political science listed as a major on their resumes.  We’re generally active in our community.  And the legislative branch, at least the last time I checked, is responsible for enacting the same ordinances and statutes that we spend the vast majority of our waking hours researching, debating and applying to the facts.

Sure, lawyers made up the vast majority of my campaign committee, were responsible for most of the funds raised by my finance committee and volunteered at the polls on Election Day.  But why not run?  And, more importantly, why not inherently understand why other lawyers choose to run?

A recent online comment to an article in the Charlotte Observer suggested a particular budget issue was the result of electing so many lawyers (exactly one) to the City Council. Maybe this is an indication of why lawyers don’t run for office – we already receive enough public scrutiny and aren’t exactly thrilled to subject ourselves to even more.

And there are obvious financial implications for running for office – time away from billing and generating new business, the costs of running a campaign and, from talking with a least one state senator, the mistaken belief by others that serving in office is a full-time occupation.

But, if not us, then who? And, if not now, then when?  So here is my short plea for lawyers to be more involved.

Put that political science degree to work.  My campaign was the best civics lesson I have experienced in my life.  I was exposed to the full depth and breadth of a community I thought I understood. Too often, in my experience, lawyers become walled off from the realities around us. The real issues facing our cities, counties and state are dealt with in school cafeterias, community centers, churches, and recreational centers. These are the places to put our training to work and to apply the theory to the practice.

Lawyers are suited for the demands of politics. When asked during my campaign how I would overcome partisanship, I was able to candidly respond that dealing with confrontation and mediating resolutions is my job.  As lawyers, we talk across the proverbial aisle during every phone conversation with opposing counsel, every mediation and every oral argument. In the same way we work for our clients, we should prepare exhaustively, advocate zealously and compromise effectively for our communities.

Politics may allow us to improve public perception. By becoming leaders in communities, lawyers can make great strides toward improving the perception of our profession. Instead of being seen as part of the problem, politics presents us with an opportunity to create solutions for citizens the way we do for our clients. Clearly, politicians are not held in the highest esteem, but lawyers, positioning ourselves as a voice of reason, arbiters of civil debate and persons of action, could return our profession to its previously lauded position.

Despite being eligible to request a runoff (coincidentally, against a fellow lawyer), I chose to forego one. In my view, my success was in the experience. I fought hard but fought fair. I debated but also listened. I battled but chose my battles wisely. In the end, I hope I represented our professional well. I just hope more lawyers will do the same in the future.

Gustafson is a partner with Essex Richards in Charlotte. His practice focuses on general, commercial and employment litigation. He also counsels small businesses on lending, corporate and real estate matters.


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