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Knope 2012: Leslie Knope for Pawnee City Council

Much like Gracie Allen’s run for President, Parks and Recreation seems at first to be a commentary on the problems with government. The first season features energetic Leslie Knope desperately trying and failing to build a local park, while her jaded coworkers knowingly explain to her the hopelessness of her efforts. Her boss, Ron Swanson, is a staunch libertarian trying to tear down government from the inside. Leslie is the only character who seems to actually care about the work of Pawnee’s local government with an almost motherly passion, and in the first season this just makes her seem delusional and unreasonable.

As the show progresses, however, Leslie’s coworkers reveal their compassion for, and dependence on, Leslie and her belief in the power of government. Even Ron, whose political ideals are the polar opposite of Leslie’s, acknowledges that he has grown to support Leslie and respect her ideology. When Leslie fears a political initiative she created will get her fired, she goes to Ron for help. Ron tells Leslie that he had tried to fire her several times before:

RON: I tried to fire you four times… The first year you worked here, you drove me nuts. I would say ‘no’ to something you wanted to do and you’d ignore me or go over my head and do it anyway. You were insubordinate, stubborn, a pain in my ass, and worst of all, bubbly.

LESLIE: I was a dedicated public servant.

RON: Right. That was the worst thing you were. Point is, I ended up withdrawing all four requests to have you fired because ultimately I’d rather work with a person of conviction than a wishy-washy kiss-ass.[1]

Ron’s affirmation of Leslie’s character reflects the entire office’s eventual support of her political aspirations.

 

Leslie makes these aspirations clear in the first season of Parks and Recreation. Standing by a wall of male portraits in Pawnee City Hall, Leslie turns to the camera, connecting directly to the audience, and explains, “behind me are all the members of the city council over the past thirty years. And every day, as a woman, I have to walk past this wall of men. It can be very upsetting.”[2] She talks continuously of her dream to join the city council and eventually be President – hilariously failing to acknowledge any steps in between. At the end of season three, after Leslie hosts a surprisingly successful Harvest Festival and a beautiful memorial service for a fallen local hero, two people approach Leslie. They explain that they are “part of a group that tries to identify potential candidates for political office [in Pawnee]” and that they think Leslie “might fit the bill.” Leslie is shocked, saying she has “dreamed about this moment for a long time” and is “absotootly” interested in running for office, specifically a seat on the city council.[3] Season four focuses almost exclusively on Leslie’s campaign to be city councilwoman, and aired from 2011-2012, paralleling the primaries for the 2012 Presidential election. After a personal scandal leaves her with only a 1% approval rating, these campaign managers drop her as a candidate. Her friends and coworkers, including Ron, offer to run her campaign for her.[4] Much like Gracie’s cast helped her campaign and planned to hold cabinet positions, Leslie’s coworkers volunteer to manage her campaign.

Again like Gracie, Leslie’s season-long campaign served as a real and intelligent political commentary. In the very early stages of her campaign, Leslie is accused of not actually being from Pawnee. Locals react angrily, asking for her birth certificate at a campaign event. Leslie tells the audience, “I don’t carry my birth certificate around with me.” An audience member shouts back, “Why? Because you’re hiding something? You should go back where you came from.” The episode aired on October 6, 2011, just months after President Obama released his birth certificate when conspiracy theorists accused him of being born outside of the United States and thus not legally eligible to be President.[5] Much like Obama, Leslie eventually decides to publicize her birth certificate, but is shocked to find out that there is some truth to the rumors; she was not born in Pawnee, but in neighboring town Eagleton. Though just minutes away from Pawnee, the news that Leslie is an “Eagletonian” is potentially damaging to her reputation. Eagleton and Pawnee are rival towns, and there is bad blood between the two. Leslie is at first distraught but, as usual, makes the best of the situation. Citing her years of public service work for Pawnee, she confidently tells her fellow citizens, “it’s not where you’re born; it’s where you’re from,” adding, “you can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose where you live. I love this town. I always have. I always will… And that’s why I’m running for city council.”[6] Leslie’s birth certificate debacle – and ultimate perseverance – is a compelling commentary on Obama’s similar problems. Through her demonstrable passion for Pawnee, Leslie proved that she was worthy of its political offices regardless of her place of birth; an idea many Obama supporters shared.

Leslie’s campaign continues – with countless bumps along the way – in a very realistic fashion. Halfway through the season, resident playboy Bobby Newport announces his candidacy for city council. Bobby’s father owns Sweetums, a beloved local candy manufacturer that employs most of the town. A wealthy boy with a knack for saying the illogical or meaningless – the comparison to Mitt Romney was unavoidable – Bobby is the perfect foil for Leslie.[7] Both are illogical in their own way, but his personal confusion contrasts with Leslie’s passion for the power of government. He has no political experience and no clear platform, but still outpolls Leslie because of his charm and popularity. While Leslie has passion and smarts, Bobby has money and local fame, and is male. His entry into the race seriously damages Leslie’s chances of winning, and his father’s successful business allows him to run campaign ads constantly. With the Knope campaign strapped for cash, Leslie’s boyfriend and campaign manager Ben Wyatt suggests one hard-hitting attack ad against Bobby during a popular local sporting event. Leslie is distraught, telling Ben, “I hate negative ads… I wanted to run an ad that highlights the good things about me, not the bad things about somebody else… Positive is always better than negative. Barack Obama said ‘yes we can,’ and now he’s President!” The comparison to Obama, though comical, is repeated throughout the campaign and suggests Leslie’s likely liberal politics (“Democrat” and “Republican” are never spoken in the show) and not just her optimism.[8]

 

Leslie tries to prove her point by making a positive ad listing all the ideas she supports, but gets so caught up in positivity that she fails to mention that she is running for city council [Watch Leslie's campaign ad here]As a response, Ben makes a fierce attack ad against Bobby [Watch Ben's campaign ad here]. Leslie is hurt, and Ben tells her “you need to get tougher.” They compromise with an ad focusing on Leslie’s attributes while offering a few short jabs at Bobby using nonsensical quotes from his own campaign ads [Watch the final ad here]. Leslie is proud of the ad, and it seems to work; when they next see Bobby, he begs them to stop running the ad and complains when they refuse. Learning from Ben, Leslie tells Bobby, “you should toughen up.”[9] Like Gracie, Leslie’s campaign is extremely realistic. Gracie’s campaign song and Leslie’s campaign ad are based on real campaign publicity issues. While Leslie did not literally tour the country like Gracie, she did have a campaign website and Facebook page accessible by fans; both campaigns extended beyond the airwaves and mirrored real electoral issues.[10] Leslie’s issues with toughening up are also recurring throughout the season and relevant to media portrayals of female politicians.

 

["Campaign Ad" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]

 

In another episode, Leslie’s coworkers lead a focus group to try to gauge how local citizens react to Leslie. Once again, Leslie is seen as too weak to run; she obsesses over one individual’s negative comments and admits to the camera that she has “never been very good at letting things go.” When one member of the focus group says Leslie does not seem like the type of person he would want to go bowling with, Leslie refuses to forget about it. Ben tries to “toughen her up” again and explain that she had to address the larger issue:

BEN: Leslie, that comment wasn’t really about whether you’re good at bowling –

LESLIE: Which I am! Ask Ron!

BEN: - Which we all know you are. But some people have the impression that you’re a little elitist or intellectual or something.

LESLIE: That is so sexist! It’s just because I’m a woman! Would they deign to say such things to Woodrow Wilson or Benjamin Disraeli? Okay I see what you’re talking about.

BEN: See, a lot of people don’t vote with their brains; they vote with their guts. I know you’re fun and you can have a good time. The public needs to see that.

Leslie is onto something with the comment about sexism, but talks herself out of it with Ben’s help. They decide to hold a bowling night open to the public to make Leslie seem more approachable. However, she focuses only on Derek, the member of the focus group that originally made the bowling comment, and when Leslie is upset that she cannot change his mind, he calls her a “bitch.” Ben punches Derek to protect Leslie, and it turns into a publicity nightmare.

 

Leslie finally conquers the problem, however, by “toughening up.” She holds a press conference to confront the issue and successfully defends her boyfriend and reframes the issue in her favor:

LESLIE: I’d like to first start by saying thank you for coming. And on behalf of Ben Wyatt and everyone involved in my campaign, I’m very sorry for what happened… last night. You know what? No, I’m not. I’m not sorry. [Derek] was drunk, and he was aggressive, and he was rude, and he was foul-mouthed, and he called me by my second-least-favorite term for a woman. And my campaign manager punched him. I do not condone violence, but I have to be honest. It was awesome… Derek hates me, and I don’t particularly like him. So, what’s the point, right, Derek?

DEREK: I feel like you’re being kind of a bitch right now.

LESLIE: See? So I’m not going to apologize. And if people won’t vote for me because of that, well, there’s nothing I can do about it… If anyone has any questions about the issues facing our city, I’m right here.

When this press conference is shown to a similar focus group, a woman immediately responds “I like her… She’s tough, I guess.” A man adds that he likes that “she stood by [Ben]” after the punching debacle.[11] Through a hurtful act of sexism, Leslie is shocked into toughening up, becoming more traditionally masculine to succeed, but does so happily and in the most effective way possible. She accepts that some people, like Derek, simply will not vote for her no matter what. Coming to accept that, with Ben’s help, allows her to present herself more completely to the rest of Pawnee.

 

["Bowling for Votes" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]

 

The campaign continues with Leslie doing much of what a real candidate would do – addressing important demographics, doing television interviews – and culminates in a debate. Leslie and Bobby Newport are the frontrunners, but three other caricatured small-party opponents also participate: a gun’s rights enthusiast, an animal rights activist, and a local porn star who tries to compare herself to Leslie because she too “knows what it’s like to be the only woman in a room full of men.” Bobby is, as always, clueless, but aligns himself with his father’s candy company and its importance to the town. While the writers of the show stress that they made a point to never overtly connect characters to actual political parties, Bobby’s wealth and his connection to big business scream of the Republican Party and, again, Mitt Romney.[12] Airing less than two months after the final Republican primary debate, the comparison is not unsubstantiated.[13]

 

Leslie opens the debate by criticizing Bobby’s wealth, telling the audience, “I love this town, and I’ve worked my whole life to make it great. I believe that I’ve earned your vote. Bobby Newport believes he can buy it, and maybe that’s because he’s never earned anything his entire life.” Leslie’s newly learned “tough” nature has peaked, and Bobby stupidly responds, “that hurt my feelings. You’re supposed to be this positive person. Can’t we just talk about things we like?” and gets a round of applause. The debate follows this pattern; the audience at home watching the show can clearly see Leslie is the most qualified for the job, but the on-screen debate audience is swayed by Bobby’s illogical charm and continues applauding him. He gets support for pointless comments like, “I’m against crime, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.” Ben suggests that Leslie “ease back,” as the Pawnee debate audience sees her as a bully. The moderators, too, favor Bobby. Leslie gets much tougher and more specific questions than the other candidates, and the moderators are strict with her time limit. The unequal treatment is reminiscent of some criticism of debate moderators’ treatment of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential primary debates.[14]

 

In the last moments of the debate, Bobby’s business affiliations (and, though unspoken, his likely Republican party identity) are affirmed. When asked how his father’s business would affect his position as city councilman, Bobby responds, “I want to run this town like a business,” which sounds similar to statements made by Mitt Romney during his 2012 campaign.[15] Bobby continues, “my opponent, Leslie Knope, has a very anti-business agenda. Recently, my dad told me that if Leslie Knope wins the election, they’ll probably have to move Sweetums to Mexico… Thousands of people in this town would lose their jobs… If I win, I bet I could get them to stay.”

 

Leslie and the audience are shocked. She has a break before her closing statement, and begs Ben to let her attack Bobby. He is wary of the idea, fearing she may again come off as a bully or too tough, but Leslie is confident. She closes with:

“I’m very angry. I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. That power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to think it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”

Leslie’s passion for her town comes off as almost motherly, saying she wants to “fight for” Pawnee, “take care of it,” and “put it first.” Leslie’s closing statement reiterates to viewers that she is the right candidate for the job, and seems to finally sway the debate audience as well. They applaud, and Bobby even responds, “holy shit, Leslie, that was awesome!”[16]

 

["The Debate" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly] 

 

The Parks and Recreation creators insist that “the first goal of [Parks and Recreation] is to be funny.” But they do admit that Parks is “certainly not apolitical,” as Leslie “believes that government can do good things, and that’s generally speaking, a Democratic idea.”[17] Moreover, by pitting Leslie against such clearly flawed candidates – narrow-minded caricatures and a nonsensical playboy uninterested in politics – the creators frame her liberal politics as obviously correct. The unqualified competition may also pose an issue for how important her win actually is, because “when Leslie’s competition for the city-council seat was revealed to be incredibly incompetent, [it] created a scenario where if Leslie lost, it would make the show seem far too cynical, and if she won, it would be hard to see it as much of a victory. So she beat a bunch of simpletons? So what?”[18] This easy victory can be read even further; not only was Leslie competing against “simpletons,” she had to con vince the citizens of Pawnee, who were so easily swayed by Bobby’s idiotic non-statements, that she was actually qualified even though she so clearly was. Leslie had to convince simpletons that she was better than her simpleton opponents, while the home viewer could clearly see how much more qualified she was than any other candidate. The disparity between in-show audience and at-home viewer implies that the viewers are more intelligent than the on-show characters, and probably more liberal as well.

 

Somehow, Leslie does sway those simpletons, and wins the election after a close race and a recount reminiscent of the 2000 Presidential election. While her campaign may have mirrored Presidential elections, her term as city councilwoman focuses on local government, while still reflecting real-world politics. Leslie’s first act as a city councilwoman is proposing “a tax on all those giant sugary sodas” to help “all local restaurants get healthier.” In May 2012, about four months before this episode aired, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a similar “ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks” to “combat rising obesity” because “more than half of adults [were] obese or overweight” in New York City.[19] An earlier episode mentions that Pawnee is “the fourth most obese city in America,” and thus facing the same problems that Bloomberg fought against in New York.[20] Leslie’s proposal is not unanimously popular; her libertarian boss is obviously against it, and a member of the Pawnee Restaurant Association tells Leslie the tax will hurt local restaurants and cause massive lay-offs. Unsure what to do, she holds a public forum and finds significant opposition to the tax along with significant support – much like Bloomberg’s proposal. Leslie, who is usually very clear in her opinions and actions, is unsure what to do. She asks Ron for advice, and he tells her to stick with her conviction, so she does. The tax passes, and Leslie calls the Pawnee Restaurant Association on their bluff.[21]

 

[A short clip from "Soda Tax" is available below. The episode can also be purchased on YouTube or viewed on Hulu+]


Parks and Recreation no longer presents the blind critique of local government that it did in its first season. The protagonist is passionate about the power of government, while her boss and close friend Ron Swanson works for the government while considering it a completely unnecessary institution. In the Leslie-Ron juxtaposition, Parks seems to give a broad view of government and a varied political perspective. But for the most part, Ron asserts his beliefs without acting, while Leslie is full of political energy. Leslie’s traditionally liberal belief in government prevails, through her election as city councilwoman and through her legislation.


[1] Parks and Recreation, “Soda Tax,” season 5, episode 2, aired September 27, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/parks-and-recreation.

[2] Parks and Recreation, “Boys’ Club,” season 1, episode 4, aired April 30, 2009 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[3] Parks and Recreation, “Li’l Sebastian,” season 3, episode 16, aired May 19, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[4] Parks and Recreation, “Citizen Knope,” season 4, episode 10, aired December 8, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[5] Sam Stein, “Obama Birth Certificate Released By White House,” Huffington Post, April 27, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/27/obama-birth-certificate-r_n_854248.html (accessed February 15, 2013).

[6] Parks and Recreation, “Born & Raised,” season 4, episode 3, aired October 6, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[7] See “Mitt Romney vs. Paul Rudd as Bobby Newport,” Indecision Forever, http://www.indecisionforever.com/blog/2012/05/03/mitt-romney-vs-paul-rudd-as-bobby-newport; “NBC’s ‘Parks & Recreation’ Introduces Suspiciously Mitt Romney-esque Character,” Hill Buzz, http://hillbuzz.org/nbcs-parks-recreation-introduces-suspiciously-mitt-romney-esque-character-named-bobby-newport-in-episode-campaign-ad-25289

[8] Ryan, “‘Parks’ Gets Political.”

[9] Parks and Recreation, “Campaign Ad,” season 4, episode 12, aired January 19, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[10] See http://knope2012.com for Leslie’s online, off-air campaign.

[11] Parks and Recreation, “Bowling for Votes,” season 4, episode 13, aired January 26, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[12] Jen Chaney, “‘Parks and Recreation’ Gets on the Political Seesaw,” Washington Post, April 26, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-04-26/entertainment/35453610_1_michael-schur-leslie-knope-bribe (accessed February 25, 2013).

[13] “The Debate” aired April 24, 2012. The last Republican primary debate was March 3, 2012.

[14] Alissa Krinsky, “Camp Hillary, Tim Russert, and the Debate,” Media Bistro, November 1, 2007, http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/camp-hillary-tim-russert-and-the-debate_b16826 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[15] Romney stated “Americans need a conservative businessman to get this economy moving again, not career politicians. That is why I am running,” as seen in “2012 Candidates Respond to Jobs Report,” Fox News, September 2, 2011, http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2011/09/02/2012-candidates-react-jobs-report.

[16] Parks and Recreation, “The Debate,” season 4, episode 20, aired April 24, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[17] Ryan, “‘Parks’ Gets Political.”

[18] Todd VanDerWerff, “‘Parks and Recreation’ Has a Leslie Knope Problem,” AV Club, March 18, 2013, http://www.avclub.com/articles/parks-and-recreation-has-a-leslie-knope-problem,93797/ (accessed March 20, 2013).

[19] Michael Grynbaum, “New York Plans to Ban Sale of Big Sizes of Sugary Drinks,” The New York Times, May 30, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/nyregion/bloomberg-plans-a-ban-on-large-sugared-drinks.html (accessed February 15, 2013).

[20] Parks and Recreation, “Soulmates,” season 3, episode 10, aired April 21, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[21] Parks and Recreation, “Soda Tax,” season 5, episode 2, aired September 27, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/parks-and-recreation.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.