Every Presidents Day holiday, Voice of OC encourages readers to take some time during the day off to read the farewell message from our nation’s first president.

When he left office in 1796, George Washington left his county a stark warning. 

Stay out of politics. 

Don’t divide yourself into clubs. 

“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” Washington wrote. 

“It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”

To read Washington’s full letter to the American people, click here.

Yet more and more, especially with tight margins in the U.S. Congress between national political parties, congressional races across Orange County are increasingly becoming national political affairs. 

Following recent elections, it also seems like local school boards like Capistrano Unified and the Orange Unified School Board, along with some city officials in places like Huntington Beach are increasingly playing off a national playbook. 

Since newly elected officials took office, Huntington Beach has spent a considerable amount of time debating which flags to fly at city hall, Anaheim and Irvine City City council members downplayed internal anti-corruption probes, Capistrano and Orange school boards abruptly fired their superintendents.

Most these debates have little to do with the quality of life issues Orange County residents care so deeply about.

Policy ideas like increasing library hours, expanding park services, instituting afterschool programs and boosting senior services are increasingly left by the wayside by some elected officials as they focus on partisanship.

And today, the political divides aren’t just between the two major parties, but within the parties themselves. 

Just a few weeks back, I got a chance to skateboard right through the national political scene, where those party passions were on full display as the Republican National Committee members – about 168 delegates from across the nation – were having their annual winter meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort and Club in Dana Point. 

Right on the heels of a nasty floor fight in the U.S. Congress to elect a new Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy from California, Republicans were having a spirited debate on who should lead their party forward as national chairperson going into a pivotal national election. 

The election pitted incumbent Chairwoman Ronna McDaniels against challengers Harmeet Dhillon and Mike Lindell. 

The atmosphere in the hotel hallways outside the delegates’ meeting rooms was tense, despite all the delegates being civil when asked questions about their deliberations. 

I landed in the midst of that tense debate t while out skateboarding on a public trail one late Friday afternoon near Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point after a long staff meeting and shortly after Daniels won an unprecedented fourth term on Jan. 27 as national chairwoman. 

Taking an ironic hard left on the public trail as I approached the beach, I ended up exploring the back end of the Monarch resort hotel grounds to get a sense of the mood. 

I eventually ended up wandering around the hotel and descended down into the lower floor conference meeting rooms. 

Turning around one hallway, I ran into Mr. My Pillow himself, Mike Lindell, who was giving spirited interviews to what appeared to be conservative media. 

Looking into the camera, Lindell passionately pleaded that everyone across America needed to pray for the nation’s judges, questioning the integrity of election tallies across the country without offering anything concrete to back up those claims. 

Lindell took a few of my questions about why he was challenging McDaniels, protesting the influence of party bosses while also noting he would ultimately work with McDaniels, bristling at my questions about whether Trump backed McDaniels instead of him – something that prompted him to end the interview. 

Eventually, I made my way down a flight of stairs that left me standing right in front of a public lobby area, just in front of where delegates were meeting in a series of nearby conference rooms. 

As delegates ventured out of their conference rooms, heading to the nearby restrooms, I politely asked them about their deliberations, who they supported, their thoughts on the future of America.

Most ignored me. A few politely engaged. Few said much, mostly looking at my reporter’s notebook with a restrained look of disdain. 

After talking to a half dozen delegates, I quickly attracted a tail of large and politely aggressive private security guards, who reminded me the conference rooms were only for credentialed delegates. 

I identified myself as a local journalist to the largest guard of the detail – telling him I respected their boundaries and only asked delegates questions as they left the conference rooms, never forcing anyone to talk to me. 

Within a few minutes, I was asked to leave the entire area, which I did. 

Happily. 

Watching our national political debate always refocuses me on the power and possibilities of local government. 

The opportunity to actually get things done, defending individual freedom, local quality of life. 

It’s exactly why I left Washington, D.C. more than two decades ago after covering Congress for several sessions, looking to explore solutions across my native Southern California. 

Every year, President’s Day, Washington’s Farewell, always reminds me of that. 

Along with one of the most obscure but longest held traditions in American politics.

Every year, a member of the U.S. Senate – this year it’s Oklahoma’s James Lankford – is selected to read out loud Washington’s stark warning on the problems inherent to the game of politics. 

The tradition of reading the address aloud in the U.S. Senate chambers goes back to 1862, where it started as a way of boosting morale during the darkest days of the U.S. Civil War. 

At the conclusion of the reading each year, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name and brief remarks in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate. 

For years, it used to just be a formal acknowledgment of having read the text in the Senate session. 

Over time, senators left longer, more thoughtful notes.

“The past is prologue,” wrote Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in his 1957 notation. “Study the past.”

Former Senator John McCain –  a deep thinker on democracy and my former boss when I worked as a Latin American analyst at the International Republican Institute, monitoring elections across the region with the National Endowment for Democracy programs in the early 1990s – left a powerful message when he delivered the speech in 1987. 

McCain, noted “In this stressful time when once again the confidence of the people in their institutions is being severely threatened, I believe it is entirely fitting to reflect on General Washington’s emphasis on morality in government. Closer adherence to his words is the surest path to a restored institution of the presidency and a renewal of faith of the American people in their system of government.”

This Presidents Day, every Orange County local official should ask themselves whether they are upholding that kind of high bar for public service.

Consider this past year that residents in two of the largest cities in our region, Anaheim and Irvine were rocked by an FBI corruption probe, raising deeply troubling questions about their respective city halls as well as the fabric of civic culture across Orange County. 

Anaheim City Council members are debating how far they should look under the hood, despite contracted investigators telling them there could be potential criminal activity uncovered by the probe. 

Irvine City Council members voted against taking any look at all. 

Meanwhile, newly elected officials in Huntington Beach have taken some recent controversial votes in what one council member said is honoring their own contract with voters. 

The most controversial move – one that is already triggering response from some business groups seeking to hold conferences in HB – is the decision to to change city flag policies to prevent flying the pride flag, 

All the recent moves by three of Orange County’s biggest city councils and school districts keep sparking resident concerns about politics over policy. 

All this should remind us all of the advice Washington left to future leaders: The need to question and check themselves.

“The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes.”

More than anything else, Washington warned that an informed public as key to maintaining a vibrant democracy.

“Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened. 

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