“I’m tired of…having to choose between the lesser of who cares.”
Epiphany moments come in all shapes and sizes — for Wesley Bolin, then-candidate for U.S. Congressional office and current Murray, Kentucky city councilperson, it came in the form of this line from The West Wing’s second season opener.
I sat down with Bolin and learned a bit more about his experience being active in local politics and small-town communities in general, and how essential each American’s participation actually is to perpetuating an effective system of local, state and federal governance.
When I asked what first encouraged him to enter a life in the public eye by running for Congressional office, he referenced the above moment of realization and continued by saying that it was not because he thought he could win in November. And that’s completely fair, as it is difficult to run successful grassroots campaigns against long-time incumbents. From the beginning, Wesley Bolin’s goal was to change how the first Congressional district of Kentucky approached local politics in general.
Bolin remarks, “I was very tired of nobody trying in the local primary. We had the same candidate…running for the same office since before I was born, and he told people publicly he was doing it to get advertising for his auctioneering business. He’d say, ‘for five hundred dollars, you can get a lot of advertising!’ (since it costs five hundred to get your name on that ballot.)”
I was astonished to hear this. As a politically active GenZ-er and simply someone who values the framework of American democracy, it did not settle well with me to know that, for a long time in our congressional district, an essential opportunity to provide a candidate for the non-status-quo vote was occupied by an individual who viewed his name on the ballot as cost-effective publicity. And it evidently upset Bolin as well!
In 2014, Wesley Bolin traveled across the state, took part in debates and revived what it meant to follow a political race in western Kentucky. That May, he received approximately 35,000 votes, falling just short of a primary win. However, the results of that election played an influential role in his decision to pursue a local office.
In politics and advocacy, Bolin learned that he could most effectively and compassionately improve the lives of those around him by focusing his efforts on reform within the city of Murray. It turns out, he was “mostly…just mad about having to go to other places.” The issues that concerned him most originated right in our hometown in Calloway County.
Since the summer of 2016, Wesley Bolin has served the city of Murray, Kentucky as the youngest (by 20 years!) of twelve city council-people — and he has definitely found his niche! From regulating small businesses to renovating city sidewalks, the members of Murray’s city council deliberate and solve a variety of issues that impact the everyday lives of residents.
“It’s really encouraging because you can get started, tackle a problem and find a solution, which is not exactly what happens on the state or national level.”
When I asked Bolin about any misconceptions people may have about a city council, he answered simply: jurisdiction — or, as he also put it, “who can you call to get things done, and who’s fault is it if it doesn’t get done.” City council is able to oversee affairs and governmental departments within the city, whereas Calloway County’s fiscal court has jurisdiction over county-wide entities (as well as any potholes outside of city limits).
That being said, the agenda of a City Councilperson stays full! Bolin currently serves on the public safety committee. One of the committee’s current initiatives moves to expand college-student access to local grocery stores, among other establishments.
“Since we’re a college town, we have a lot of international students. They don’t have cars or licenses, so they walk. For safety, we’re building new sidewalks towards Wal-mart, north of town and other areas where people (now) have to walk on the side of the road. So all that will make (Murray) healthier and safer.”
In addition to serving Murray, Kentucky as a local public figure, he recently began a career as a World History teacher to students at Murray High School.
When I asked what he enjoyed most about teaching high schoolers like me, he said, “this is the last chance a lot of people will have to study everything. It’s so exciting to be around people with all this possibility, who are so open to learning.”
As he is an active member of the local government and a teacher of social studies curriculum, it felt fitting that the last question I asked him was, “do you believe a general knowledge of civic involvement is necessary for people my age?” to which he replied absolutely.
Bolin continued: “It’ll save you a lot of time later on, and if (GenZ-ers) or (Millennials) want to effect change on a national, state, or local scale, you have to have people who are willing to vote…If you don’t know when elections are, what happens at elections, or that midterms exist, or that Kentucky elects its governor on an off-odd year, then nothing’s going to happen.”
I was glad to hear from a pretty established source that knowledge of civics is absolutely the best first step to take when hoping to effect any sort of change on the country around us.
Another significant takeaway I had from this discussion was that the sphere of governance associated with a given political office should not inherently define that office’s importance as less than or greater. America’s democracy was framed with the necessity of delegated powers in mind, and little could be done at state and federal levels if executive decisions were not made and enforced locally as well.