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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Ellen Fletcher's lesson for all politicians -- local or not

Uploaded: Nov 27, 2012

Before the late Ellen Fletcher pedals off to fade into history and anecdote there's a lesson she provided that politicians -- local or national and in between -- might take to heart.

Fletcher, who served on the Palo Alto City Council in the late 1970s and early 1980s, died Nov. 7 after battling lung cancer. Many persons have shared anecdotes and perceptions of her contributions to the community, to go along with a long list of community awards below the Weekly story on her death (available at www.PaloAltoOnline.com).

But she will be remembered for more than being a dedicated advocate of using bicycles as a serious form of transportation, as she learned as a child in London after she escaped the Nazi scourge in Germany and before she moved to America.

The lesson Fletcher left behind is simple: Be honest, be real, be yourself.

I personally observed this aspect of Fletcher when I was a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, covering Palo Alto city government and politics. After some time working in a support role of other City Council candidates and community issues, Fletcher decided to run -- or pedal -- for council herself.

Part of my beat was to check in with the Police Department every morning, which I did in person most mornings. But one morning I was greeted by chortles from several officers, one of whom informed me that they had ticketed Fletcher for running through a stop sign on her bike, in south Palo Alto. Officers at the time were not known for their advocacy of bicycling.

My next task, I knew, was to call Fletcher, whom I had just met shortly before, and ask her about her violating the stop-sign law. Having dealt with scores of local politicians by that time, I anticipated a negative response from Fletcher.

I expected a response that might include one or more of the following:

1) Questioning or angrily challenging whether getting the ticket is newsworthy.

2) Asking something like, "Do you have to write about that?"

3) Arguing that many other bicyclists ignore stop signs when no cars are approaching.

4) Threatening to pull campaign ads from the paper if a story is run.

So, bolstered against some type of resistance, I called Fletcher. She greeted me cheerfully. I explained why I was calling.

Yes, she responded with no pause, adding that she ran the stop sign and got a ticket, stating only that it was clear to her that no cars were coming from the side streets -- but that she didn't see the police car behind her.

Pleasantly surprised at her candor and openness, I decided to push my luck: I asked how she'd feel about taking her bike back to the stop sign so we could take a picture of her and the sign.

Sure, she said, asking when she should be there. The Times' city editor was as surprised as I was when I told him about her reaction.

The resulting photo showed her straddling her bike looking back at the camera with the stop sign in the background. On a wire basket behind the bike seat were affixed "bumper strips" promoting her campaign.

I'm not sure whether the publicity (with photo) helped or hurt her campaign, but she pedaled easily into office. Once on the council, she worked hard to overcome her initial reputation as a one-issue candidate. She did her homework on a wide range of issues, surprising many with her grasp of details, while still leaning strongly toward environmental positions and a slower-growth scenario for the community and region.

Promoting bicycling remained a key part of her life, publicly and personally -- and well after she was diagnosed with lung cancer as she continued cycling around town insofar as she was able.

To me her real legacy is her candor, honesty and lack of concern about how she might be perceived by voters and citizens. She is not alone among local and other politicians who are up-front and "what you see is what you get." And there are many good public officials who also are sensitive to their reputations and public perception.

But Fletcher's unwavering consistency and openness stand out vividly as both a personal style and an example for future candidates and public officials, whether or not they pedal to meetings.

*Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).*