With well over 400 blog posts and newspaper columns under my belt, having run for office once, and attended more public meetings than I can count, I've had the opportunity to see and learn a lot about the local politics scene in North Mecklenburg - some of it not nice and some of it is absolutely great!
What has happened in local politics with the rise in citizen activism around the I77 HOT lanes issue falls into the latter category.
Has it been messy? Yes. Has it always been nice and polite? No. No, it has not.
But really, what exactly do those in positions of authority really expect when people finally wake up, get off the couch, and get involved?
If you take the most docile dog, put it in a cage, feed it garbage, and only let it out every so often just to give it a swift kick, when it eventually gets off the leash that dog will bite. Not only will it bite, it will grab ahold tightly and shake as hard as possible.
Admittedly, that's an overly colorful comparison, but that's essentially what happened in Huntersville this past election. The same likely would have happened in Cornelius and Davidson as well - particularly in the Mayors' races - if those had been contested.
So, while there is still considerably much to be done when it comes to the I77 toll issue, the activist groups involved have done a lot of things right to get to this point. So far, the anti-toll movement has done a great job avoiding three major pitfalls that often kill activist driven movements - too much ego, too many ideas, and too little enthusiasm.
When it comes to leadership, there is not a single leader of the anti-toll movement or even a real leadership structure. Are there people who are more prominent than others? Certainly, but they are dispersed enough to make it difficult for the pro-toll politicians and their allies in the media and the toll industry to specifically target them effectively.
The multiple activist groups that have grown out of the movement all cover different niches and leadership has been dispersed in ways that minimize the opportunity for conflict. Between Exit 28 Ridiculousness, Lake Norman Conservatives, WidenI77.org, and I77 Business Plan there are at least a dozen "leaders". That does not include the many other individuals doing things on their own and those who step up for specific efforts.
This dispersal also broadens the movement's appeal by providing different options for more people to be involved in ways they feel comfortable. In this movement you will find people of all income and education levels. You'll find people most comfortable in bathing suits on the lake to people most comfortable in business suits in boardrooms. You'll find Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Progressives and most importantly, people who would describe themselves as "none of the above".
That diversity is a real strength, but it can also be a weakness if not handled correctly. Here again, the movement has done things well by remaining focused.
Two of the groups, WidenI77.org and I77 Business plan are solely focused on the issue, so that is relatively easy. LKN Conservatives started out of the desire of some Republicans who wanted to speak out more forcefully on the issue breaking away from the more establishment local GOP group, the North Mecklenburg Republican Women. Even though the LKN Conservatives does have speakers covering other topics they do a good job of keeping the conversation about tolls when crossing paths with activists of different stripes within the anti-toll movement.
The group most at risk of other topics dividing the effort is E28R simply because it is an effort based on Facebook. It is really easy to get off track in cyberspace. However, the group has done a really good job of moderating and when things have periodically veered off on other issues it is quickly brought back to focus.
Finally, there has been no lack of enthusiasm.
For an effort that has been this long - three years running for many people - that is simply amazing. When looking at the number of hours put into this effort it is simply hard to believe that so many
people have remained committed for so long. That also tells you how important this issue is for the community.
The victories at the polls this past election should be a real shot in the arm - particularly for those people new to the political process.
If this activist driven momentum continues and does not fall prey to a letdown, there will likely be repercussions felt for years to come. So many more people are watching and are now aware how local government works, it will be hard to go back to how things were when only a few were paying attention.