Pastor Angelo Frazier of Riverlakes Community Church sometimes jokingly refers to my friend, Kern County Supervisor David Couch, as the "Voice of God" because of Couch's booming, deep, friendly baritone voice. David Couch's voice is, in fact, so unmistakably unique that many people fail to notice that what makes their conversations with David work isn't the voice, but instead a virtue he shares with Paster Frazier, a willingness to really listen to the concerns of others.
I call David's ability to listen his rare, super-secret political superpower. Before joining David Couch's team as his Chief of Staff, I worked as an attorney who often met, along with nervous clients and uncertain consultants, with more talkative elected officials. Then, we'd usually end-up wondering whether the elected official heard us at all. David, by contrast, is the master of the thoughtful pause. He asks questions that bring clarity and demonstrate understanding. Talk radio host Inga Barks, who asks questions for a living, once told me that David Couch didn't need to argue with her -- David could, by merely asking a question, "open my mind to possibilities I hadn't even considered." And, as he turns sixty-years-old and prepares for the political fight of his career in a largely new district where many people haven't been listened to by their political leaders for decades, his superpower is precisely the thing that his constituents want and need.
The frustrating thing, of course, is that most of the thousands of new constituents in District 4 don't know about David's superpower. In fact, they don't know who he is and what he's about, at all. So, for David Couch's 60th birthday, I'm going to deliver to those new constituents an abbreviated version of the writing every politician hopes his staffer will never publish: the revealing tell-all. But, since Kitty Kelly's publisher hasn't called with a book deal, I'm going to limit it to just this one blog post, and I'm not going to share with you the things that I've seen while working with David just the things I have never seen. I think the things I've never seen are in some ways even more revealing and they make the case that he's a unique leader.
First, I have never seen David Couch break a campaign promise. His office keeps a list of campaign promises he has made; there is no area in which Couch has made a promise that hasn't been improved as a result of his service in office. The office sets internal goals based on his promises, and he even ropes his colleagues into making some of those goals into County-wide goals and priorities. It is almost as if he treats campaign promises as contracts under which he is obligated to perform. I've never seen this before in a political office, but wouldn't this country be a better place if every representative saw their role this way?
Second, I have never seen David Couch sacrifice the independence of his judgment by joining a political machine or clique. Most people knew David Couch as a voice on the radio who tried to help people out with personal finance questions when he decided to first run for office almost two decades ago. He ran against a machine-backed incumbent candidate named Kevin McDermott in what many characterized as an impossible race for him to win. But, he won, anyway. And, as the local Republican and Democrat machines tear their members apart, engage in dangerous groupthink, and bully outsiders like mean children, David Couch stands alone as the adult in the room. He's taken some punishment, but he has never taken the bait. This is also something virtually unique in local politics. Constituents should know that when David Couch casts a vote, he is exercising his judgment about what is best for them and not paying dues to a machine.
Third, I have never once heard David Couch use his faith or his family for political purposes. This is fairly unique in Californian's central valley. Don't get me wrong, I sometimes appreciate it when political leaders use the language of their faith in public, and so does David Couch. In an increasingly secular culture, that can be a courageous demonstration of shared values. But, it can also be self-serving and sacrilegious. And, at its worst, it works to draw an earthly political line between some of God's children and the faith that should be their birthright. David consistently refuses to cheapen his faith for applause or demagoguery or use religion as a political sword. And, while he has a great family, he gives them the privacy they deserve. The most you'll hear is a joke or a wisecrack demonstrating how much he loves them. He doesn't veer off-topic to manipulate but gives people the respect of assuming that when he speaks about the matters that are important to them, they will understand and appreciate it.
Fourth I have never seen David Couch refuse to meet with or listen to a constituent at least once. Most political offices have a kind of VIP list. The people on the list are those who receive priority for access to the Supervisor. If such a list exists in David Couch's office, I've never seen one. He takes appointments from friends and foes alike, and he listens with what seems like equal interest to both. Typically, when you meet at an elected's office, you are given many signals that the elected's schedule is compacted, their time is precious and scarce, and you must hurry to share what you need to share. That's not true with David. It's not that he spends much more time with constituents than other electeds do, but it seems like it. And, meetings with constituents aren't an afterthought. David has political viewpoints and a value system, but the bulk of his office's time and resources are spent fixing potholes and fighting slumlords. While most politicians are walking bumper sticker slogans, David is all about the hands-on wrangling of government to make it work better for the people he meets and talks with every day.
Fifth I have never seen David refuse to do any kind of work on the grounds it is beneath him. When I first came to work for David, he was experiencing severe back pain and going to physical therapy, but he was also organizing community clean-ups. I remember telling him that no one would think less of him if he just went out to the event, shook some hands, and posed for a photograph or two before calling it a day. That's what the other politician do, I reasoned. I told him "People expect that and just appreciate that you organized the event, brought people together, and made it happen." He told me, "That's not leadership. If I ask people to join me in picking up trash, I have to pick up trash myself. It's not like I'm the only one with a bad back who has a job to do." I've seen him yank weeds out the ground while concealing the pain. There has simply never been a better Supervisor to reflect the values of the hardworking people of the 4th District.
David has a great sense of humor and a loyal and passionate appreciation for the homegrown restaurants in his district. I have laughed more and eaten better while working with David Couch than I have working at all the other jobs I've held combined. And, through it all, we've managed to trick staff into changing things for the better more than once or twice and improved County government in significant ways. There's a lot more to tell, but I hope that his new constituents will take the time to come out to a free movie screening or to a coffee meet and greet and get to know the "Voice of God" for themselves. I'm one of many who can say I'm better for having done so.