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I’ve still been stewing on the response Judie Italiano, the general manager of the city’s largest employee labor union, sent in about the idea that taxpayers and city employees might be able to come to the table to fortify the city for this fiscal crisis.

She’s clearly uninterested in discussing even the possibility that she and her members can be flexible on their benefits to fortify the city for the financial crisis we’re facing. And this brings up a point I’ve been wanting to make for a while about special interests.

I was confused for a while about how the term “special interests” became an insult in politics. There are a lot of special interests that, individually, people would consider good things: groups who advocate for environmental protection, leaders advocating for business growth and opportunities, activists representing the disabled and others representing workers. There are education reformers and cruise ship operators. We’ve got them all.

When you inspect each of these special interest on their own, they can all make strong arguments about why they exist.

But the reason voters and concerned residents react so negatively to them as a whole is because of what they mean for the community as a whole.

The problem with special interests is that they are each very narrowly focused on their own missions. Their missions are never to advance the community as a whole. They always work to protect or nurture their own corner of the community. Yes, a lot of them (like businesses and environmentalists) can argue that their efforts and their agenda have positive effects on the advancement of the community.

But what frustrates people, and what drags politicians down who can be pegged as being beholden to special interests, is the concern that they are putting those specific missions ahead of the progress and advancement of the community as a whole. The community might want its government to take care of priorities A, B, C and D respectively. But a special interest with undue influence over a politician might make figure out a way to do D first or to protect C and let A and B deteriorate.

This is the problem with special interests. The community wants to always improve itself. It wants better roads, solid services, well-maintained public facilities, and of course, clean water and sanitation. Part of what has been so frustrating for residents in recent years is the wide-spread conclusion that these things we value have deteriorated and, at the same time, certain special interests have found themselves in much improved situations — or at least protected from the adverse effects other sectors have suffered.

So what I would encourage special interests to do is recast their efforts — explain why what they care about, their mission in other words, is one of the ingredients needed for our community to get what it wants as a whole.

This is where I get back to MEA. Of all the city’s unions, MEA’s leaders seem the least adept at explaining why what they are advocating is in the best interests of the community as a whole. Perhaps they don’t believe influencing the public is something that is in their interest — their special interest.

This might be the case if MEA leaders have truly concluded that they would rather see the city cut services and layoff hundreds of their colleagues rather than bend a small bit on benefits. The worst thing that can happen to this city would be for both the unions to conclude that they’d rather watch layoffs and service cuts occur than cut benefits and the citizens decide they’d rather watch layoffs and service cuts occur because they can’t stand to give these people more tax revenue.

We all lose and can walk by our empty libraries and spray graffiti in our empty swimming pools.

If a special interest struggles in explaining why what it pursues is good for the community at large, well, then they really need to think about that. And they need to not be surprised when the broader public finds them to be an undesirable if not destructive influence on the political system.

SCOTT LEWIS

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