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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Are Ethics Important?

By Silvia Uribe

In this case, candidates for public office will have the last word. But let me start by asking you a question: Isn't it true that, based on the understanding of our social norms, morality, honesty, and honor are - or should be- key ingredients in our daily life, no matter who we are, or what we do? Moreover, society talks about these components of the human fabric and regards the individuals who possess them as ethical, principled people whom one can trust, and are examples to follow.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that there are people and activities that may be exempt from these important moral standards; much less did I think that the exemption could be institutionally granted. Yes, this is the case with politics and politicians. An ethical behavior is not a requirement for candidates running for public office, according to the California Elections Code. Go figure! In other words, decency and principles are considered optional for candidates up and down our state, every time there's an election. They may choose to embrace these principles and act accordingly, but if they opt out, that's okay too.

In our city, the Santa Barbara Candidate's Manual includes, this year, a set of eight documents which are all the statements, disclosures and commitments that candidates have to make regarding their campaigns, their finances, and everything that they need to know and do in order to be in compliance. It is required for candidates to file each document, and in doing so they abide by certain standards.

The only one exception in this packet is a single page called, "Code of Fair Campaign Practices"(basically a code of ethics), which appears under the subtitle, "Optional". Here are some examples of what the California Elections Code, section 20440 reads:

"Code of Fair Campaign Practices

... (2) I SHALL NOT USE OR PERMIT the use of character defamation, whispering campaigns, libel, slander, or scurrilous attacks on any candidate or his or her personal or family life... Or, (3) I SHALL NOT USE OR PERMIT any appeal to negative prejudice based on a candidate's actual or perceived race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, age, sexual orientation, sex, including gender identity, or any other characteristic… Or, (4) I SHALL NOT USE OR PERMIT any dishonest or unethical practice that tends to corrupt or undermine our American system of free elections… "

In total, there are 7 points along these lines. You can go here and check them out. The big surprise comes at the very end of section 20444, which reads:

"In no event shall a candidate for public office be required to subscribe to or endorse the code."

How is this possible? We all know what happens when doctors, teachers, athletes or even clergy act unethically. When they do it, they know it is wrong, and they take the risk, understanding that they're going against the laws of society. Moreover, if others find out about their wrongful conduct, these individuals can expect to have serious public and private consequences. Apparently, it is not so in the political realm.

We all know that if we don't make certain standards of conduct mandatory in politics, we can anticipate politicians lying, stealing, letting down their constituents, or doing whatever they want to do. If we want honesty in politics, however, we should demand candidates' commitment to ethical practices beginning on the campaign trail. Otherwise, we are equally immoral and culpable of enabling the same behaviors of which we later complain about.

Now, we only have to wait. It will be really interesting to see which candidates will sign the "Code of Fair Campaign Practices", and by opting out, which ones will not commit to conduct an ethical campaign. This will be important information to determine what we can expect from each candidate, and future official, this and every time there's an election. In my view, politicians' ethics and positions on issues are equally important.

According to the City Clerk's Office, this information will be available to the public the last week of August.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at

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