This week we’re looking at an intriguing look at rural small town American politics. This week, we’re looking at Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende.
This one got my attention mostly because I myself ran for rural small town City Council twice a decade ago – unsuccessfully both times – and so whenever I see an actual book come out about such experiences, I’m immediately interested. In this one, it turns out that this particular town has a couple of very big differences than my far-from-the-sea town did: 1) The jurisdiction here includes a cruise terminal and Glacier Point, a major cruise excursion destination. 2) While the town that I ran for Council in is the home of country singer Luke Bryan, San Fransisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, and American Idol Season 12 winner Phillip Phillips (and I have interesting experiences being in area crowds with both singers), Lende’s town – Haines, AK – happens to be the hometown of Parker Schnabel of Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush family of shows. And one of the controversies Lende spends a fair amount of time on in this book is her decision – along with other members of a split Council – to hire Parker’s aunt, Debra Schnabel, as the town’s Manager. It was a controversy big enough that it nearly led to her ouster less than one year into a three year term, and it apparently set the tone for the rest of her term and indeed for the narrative of this book.
Overall the book did exactly what I expected of it – it showed the realities of life on a small town City Council, the striking dichotomies of being “The Honorable Heather Lende” or “Ms. Lende” or such in meetings and “Heather” as soon as the gavel sounds to close the meeting. Of having disagreements about policy so stark that voters initiate a recall election against you… and then finding out people you thought were good friends, who go to church with you, shop at the store your husband runs, or other seemingly major small town connections… signed the damn petition that forced the recall to happen. I had a degree of that myself even in my unsuccessful runs, watching people as they walked into the singular voting precinct in my town (Lende’s had two, despite having roughly the same number of voters) as I waved campaign signs from across the street while talking to an area reporter. So while I was never recalled, I know well the… interesting… feelings Lende discusses quite well in the text.
In her calls for civility and her support for Robert’s Rules of Order as a mechanism for returning us back to a more civil era of politics and the Rule of Law, Lende actually manages to evoke a sense of President Andrew Shepherd as portrayed by Michael Douglas in The American President. Which their shared liberal politics helps to cement, to a degree. 😉
Ultimately, this was a very satisfying and fairly quick (for a nonfiction book) read, and it is very much recommended.
As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
Reminiscent of The American President, To A Point. This is a tale of a small town grandmother’s one and only City Council run in a small rural Alaskan town that happens to have a couple of major connections: It is the home of Glacier Point -a major Alaskan cruise stop -and it is the hometown of Parker Schnabel of Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush family of shows. Both of which actually play heavily into the narrative here, as they both came up repeatedly in Lende’s singular three year term from 2016 – 2019.
Overall Lende is at times hopeful, at other times remorseful, and at still others a bit wistful. In both her politics and her overruling desire for basic decency, she even manages to evoke Michael Douglas’ portrayal of President Andrew Shepherd in The American President, again, at least to a point. She manages to be seemingly honest about at least her thoughts and motivations during the various events and controversies of the three years, and in so doing provides an insight into what being on a small town City Council really can be like. Very much recommended.