Glen Johnson/Globe Staff
Newt Gingrich's consideration of forming a presidential exploratory committee and Tim Pawlenty's decision to actually take the plunge and form an exploratory committee himself signal that again, and soon, the nation's attention will return to that seminal rung of politics.
Of course, it's the presidential contest.
But as anyone who has observed politics from the bottom-up will tell you, local politics is where the real action is at.
Nowhere are the candidates as raw, or so directly in contact with voters, as they are in the cities and towns that dot the United States.
The late Paul Tsongas, who rose to US senator from Massachusetts and 1992 Democratic presidential contender, used to say, "Everything I needed to know in politics, I learned on the Lowell City Council."
While presidential candidates are surrounded with advisers, guided by polls, and protected from reporters by velvet ropes, eager aides, or Secret Service agents, most local pols have their phone number in the book and answer when you call, too.
That's the way it was until a year ago, when former Wrentham town assessor and selectman, former Massachusetts state representative, and former Massachusetts state senator Scott Brown got elected to the US Senate.
Now it's a little harder to get the Republican to pick up.
You can go from the Ipswich and Tewksbury board of selectmen to the Salem and Lowell city councils, from the Massachusetts State House to the US Capitol and a presidential campaign itself, and still find it hard to exceed the fun or feel of the local political scene.
And, for all the hype and hoopla that builds up the political ladder, not much changes beyond the number of zeroes in the budget, or the distance between the candidate and the voters.
Along the way, you'll likely encounter roughly four genres of politicians pervading the US system:
1. The good guy: Every political body (except, perhaps, some of the former leaders of Bell, Calif.) has one or two super-earnest members who try to do the right thing. Sober and direct, you can trust what they say, which explains why they are repeatedly re-elected.
2. The bomb-thrower: Every political body (including, it seems, some of the former members of the Detroit City Council) has one or two members who delight in attracting attention to themselves with brash, unvarnished speech. The meeting room is the stage, local cable the medium. They are true characters and stand for something anything which explains why they are repeatedly re-elected.
3. The media suck-up: Every political body has one or two members who feel that the best way to achieve their goals is to court the reporters who cover them. They're often willing to hand-off reports, suggest beers after a long meeting, or provide the inside dope on deadline not that there's anything wrong with most of those. They almost always have higher aspirations, which can be plainly apparent to voters, explaining why they are sometimes defeated.
4. The back-bencher: Every political body has one or two members who have no higher aspiration than their current office. They don't make waves or try to draw attention to themselves. It's not beyond them to go to Sunday Mass, shake hands on the way out, and then go back in so they can attend Mass again and shake more hands on the way out. They are often re-elected, until some upstart calls them out or they make an age-related gaffe, when they get tossed.
In one community north of Boston, Don Stewart is the prototypical local pol. He's seeking election next Tuesday as a town selectman.
He was born in town, literally, and now, at age 70, lives five doors down on the same street. He served as a selectman for 15 years before losing re-election in 2006.
On a main drag heading into town from a major highway, a supporter planted a big sign touting what passes for a platform in much of Americana: "Don Stewart cares about townies, seniors, veterans, self-employed & the disabled."
On the phone yesterday, Stewart laughed about the sign, particularly the use of the term "townie."
"There's not enough room to put down 'lifelong resident,' but it rubs some people the wrong way," said Stewart. "I asked him to take it down. If it offends one person, that's too much for me."
Stewart grew up in town and graduated from high school in 1958. While he was 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds at the time, he never played sports because he worked 40 hours a week at 50 cents an hour to help support his family. (Stewart made up for it by playing softball until he was 62.)
He segued to a mill job, before developing a house-painting business. His contact with the locals led to an additional 18-person janitorial service, which gave Stewart and his wife of 49 years enough money to send their son and daughter to college.
Along the way, though, the Stewarts opened up their home. To kids in the "A Better Chance" educational program. To battered women. And to 68 foster children over 30 years, including one who recently moved back after trouble in his own marriage.
"The one thing that's missing from that sign is 'kids,' because they've been a big part of my life," Stewart said.
Today, he is retired, at least from work. His 20-year stint as town Santa is behind him, as is his service on other local panels. He still goes to selectmen meetings just to watch, his institutional memory so valuable the current board often calls into the audience for Stewart to provide some missing historical context.
He ran for school committee in 2007 and lost a close race. He ran for selectman in 2009 and lost again, though narrowly.
Last year, he had prostate cancer, so he took a year off the campaign trail. This year, he's back to give it one more shot. Local politics, and public service, are part of his composition.
“I sit at home now and I got to have something to do. There’s no way I'm just sitting here, watching TV," he said.
Then, before hanging up, he didn't bother to say goodbye.
Embodying Tip O'Neill's maxim that "all politics is local," he encouraged participation, even if not for him.
“Make sure you get out to vote Tuesday," said Stewart.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.