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Forget Washington — we must tackle national problems at the local level

The ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" efforts around the country are bringing renewed attention to the immense economic inequality that exists in the United States. A singularly telling fact about this level of inequality has stuck in my mind since I first read it a couple of weeks ago in Nicholas Kristof's column in The New York Times: The wealth controlled by the 400 richest individuals in America is greater than that of the bottom 150 million Americans. This level of disparity is not only deplorable, it is immoral. Even more reprehensible and destructive to the country is the overwhelming power of big monied interests in influencing the country's policies.

In 2006, infuriated by this situation, I ran for Congress. Thanks to the help of a lot of supporters, I finished a relatively close second, in a competitive primary field of eight, to John Sarbanes. In the past few years, Congressman Sarbanes has been a thoughtful and effective representative. But my professional experience with the federal government, combined with widespread media coverage of the vitriolic gridlock in the nation's capital, has made it painfully clear to me and millions of others that Washington is completely broken. And the damage is probably irreparable if the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United ruling isn't eventually overturned, as that decision would effectively close the door on the cleansing possibility of public financing of campaigns.

It has become evident to me that even if I were a United States congressman, I would have virtually no influence on reducing the disparities afflicting the country. Sure, individual representatives and senators can make a difference around the edges (like obtaining funding for specific projects or buildings). But when it comes to addressing the most crucial issue affecting the United States, only a handful of the most powerful politicians in Washington have any say at all — and their stances are usually dictated by the interest of heavily bankrolled contributors from major sectors of the business world: finance, insurance and pharmaceuticals being among the largest.

If you take as a given that Washington is a lost cause, should we just throw up our hands and give up trying to make a better, more equitable country? I answer with a resounding "no" — but with the caveat that we should change our focus from Washington to the local level. To this end, there is a great project going on, associated with a new documentary film, "Grassroots," to be released to theaters next year. The film documents the true story of a young man in Seattle who seeks election against an incumbent city councilman and almost wins, based on his stand on an important neighborhood issue. All well and good, but the director of the film, Stephen Gyllenhaal, and his cast and crew have made an important decision. They have taken the movie on the road to college campuses across the country with a specific goal: to get young people interested in running for local office.

The benefits of this approach are many. First, local government is a place where young adults with a passion for improving the town or area in which they live can truly make a difference in their community. Second, seeking office at the local level requires vastly smaller sums of campaign contributions than need to be raised at the statewide or congressional level, making it more feasible for young people to successfully challenge dispassionate incumbent politicians. Third, unlike a congressional or statewide contest, where the only thing that really matters is raising enough millions of dollars to run thousands of TV ads, local races can be won simply through a dedicated grass-roots effort.

To this end, several of us are looking to bring the "Grassroots" project to the college campuses of the Baltimore region. We all know of passionate young people in our lives who could make a real difference in our communities right now. It is time that we turn away from Washington for solutions and instead look inward to young people in our local communities to start making the improvements at the local level to assure a more equitable standard of living for all of us.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the Howard County health officer, is on adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. His email is pbeilenson@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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