I'd like to invite comments about the value of public service experience, specifically including elected office, in evaluating candidates.
Like a lot of policy-oriented voters, I put policy first. A candidate who is fundamentally unacceptable in the areas of most importance to me (such as environment, health care, equal opportunity) gets disqualified. But after that, I start to look heavily at both indications of commitment to the public's interest generally, and experience in public office specifically.
This last criterion applies particularly to candidates for "higher" office--positions not generally considered entry-level elected posts--offices like Congress and statewide elected executive positions. Yes, I know that folks love "new ideas" and fresh faces generally. But really--elected representatives at that level are in full-time positions which demand specific knowledge and skill sets in order to be handled effectively. Governing and legislating are scientific studies, in which skill and experience count for a lot. Naivete is not refreshing in a representative, just frustrating. A candidate who doesn't understand what a position can do or how to do it is no good to anyone.
Experience can translate across professions, but not necessarily. Even suble differences can be crucial. A great military officer might make a lousy police officer. A wonderful teacher might get lost in running a business. A superb fundraiser may be clueless in managing one of the programs he/she raises money to support.
Peformance in elected office is one of the most effective predictors of effectiveness in another subsequent office. Seeing how an individual responds to the needs and demands of constituents and special interests tells me a lot more than listening to how that person claims they will respond.
In addition, the pressures of the public spotlight of high elected position are unique. Some folks, even nice people in everyday life, simply don't handle the excessive attention and sense of power well.
John Edwards was a classic cautionary tale here. An outstanding saleman (as a skilled trial lawyer), he quickly fell to the sirens of power and attention. The results were not pretty at all. Edwards had never served in public office before he ran for U.S. Senate. He even showed early promise as a Senator, and always talked a convincing and seemingly passionate line, but he lacked the discipline and character to stick with doing the job for which he campaigned. He squandered his potential with an egotistical pursuit of the presidency--and proved he couldn't handle the acclaim and attention even there.
We'd have been far better served by a person of Edwards' abilities, who had first been tested (and "acclimated" if you will) by a turn as a state legislator, a mayor, or some similar testing post. Responsible public appointed posts like boards and commissions, when they demand real skill, knowledge, and dealing with competing interests, can be almost as instructive.
Among progressive activists, public service experience rarely seems to enter into the discussion of candidates' appeal. For those of us who actually believe in the power of government to do public good in a democracy, shouldn't we consider that kind of experience to be important?