If you drive through Mason City, Iowa there is a tiny little “greasy spoon” diner called Suzy-Q Cafe. It seats only 8 people inside around a main counter, and an owner who knows the locals by name. Outside there are a few tables for the summer season, when there is more foot traffic near the shops and mall to bring people in.
My husband and I were trying to find a small non-chain cafe to stop for some brunch so we could find some decent bacon and eggs (ham for him) and we had a difficult time in some of the towns, which had only Subway, Taco Johns and McDonald’s. Even though I occasionally spring for a happy meal when I have a hankering for a few fries, I generally avoid fast food restaurants.
The owner of the restaurant had stepped out for a few moments to run and errand, and his helper had graciously offered us the breakfast or lunch choices (it was around 10a.m.). The helper, good intentions and all, had a little trouble with the bacon, however. In a few minutes when the owner returned seeing the burned bacon, he started from scratch and made us the classic breakfast with bacon (or ham), eggs, hash browns and toast. They both apologized profusely about the delay, and we were not in a hurry so to us it was no big deal.
We talked a bit about how sad it is that most towns are not able to sustain little diners like this. The owner told us about how he wanted to price his meals reasonably, but not being able to get volume discounts on the food, like the big chains, it is difficult to do that. We talked about the fact that when big highways get build to bypass small towns, it often results in the small towns losing out on possible local business from people like us, who have no incentive to stop.
Several other diners appeared to be people he knew and/or neighbors of his. As one of his diners came in they began talking about the recent city council race in which he is running for a seat on the council. Last election cycle he had put his name on the ballot to see if name recognition would be a factor, but did not run a campaign. This year, it turned out he decided to campaign “for real” and try to get the word out among neighbors and friends, and to get them registered to vote. Since there were at least 3 people vying for each office, and none received a majority, they will have a runoff election on December 5th.
I know nothing about his politics and I did not even get his name. However, when I did a quick search of city council races in Mason City, Iowa I found an article in the Globe Gazette that cited voter turnout as being the highest in 20 years. Granted there were issues like a “River Renaissance” investment on the ballot, so that surely influenced turnout.
To me this is what our political system needs: people like this small business owner, who talk with people every day about their concerns and issues. Whatever the party, and some city council elections do not even list party affiliation (I have not looked into this, since I am not voting).
What if more people like this became a part of our political landscape? I think it would alter our democracy for the better. Granted, running for the highest office in the land without so much a stint on a city council is not something I believe is fruitful. But when you start with grassroots democracy, I think people can win. Public service is an honorable responsibility. More honorable people need to consider getting involved.