I’ve waited for a week to let the Obama afterglow wear off so I could bring up a critique of this past Nov. 4th election (and I even posted about food to appease my fellow foodies). The topic here is the influence of the local Democratic Committee in Richmond’s City Council, School Board, and Mayoral elections. In short, I think it sucks. To put a finer point on it, my experience with this (and previous presidential elections) leaves me with the impression that the Democratic party is undermining democracy in Richmond. As a voter who went straight down the line recommending that we unseat incumbents and install new leadership from Pennsylvania Ave to Broad Street, I found myself going upconfronted with an ally and an obstacle to accountability in the form of the local Democratic Committee.
- Local candidates should forget party affiliation and talk about the job at hand.
- Richmond needs to promotes early voting and/or make the poling places more organized and less of a playground for the entrenched political machines.
- The Democratic Committee of Richmond needs to STOP MEDDLING IN LOCAL ELECTIONS.
- The “Virginia as battleground state” phenomenon may be harmful to Richmond’s local government and school system.
- Steps should be taken to ensure that local candidates earn every vote they get, rather than riding the wave of state and national campaigns (banning sample ballots, maybe).
- Schedule Richmond City Council and School Board races on any year BUT the same Tuesday’s in November when we elect a new president (duh!).
As you may or may not know, candidates for local office in Richmond generally do not declare a party affiliation. However, since nearly 80% of Richmond City residents vote Democrat, it’s pretty much a non issue. That is, unless there is a presidential election going on. Then, running as a Democrat and billing oneself as THE ONLY Democrat option on the ballot, becomes very important to local candidates, and getting elected on one’s merits takes a back seat. It’s an unfortunate distraction when school board candidates try to equate their opponents with George W. Bush and the neo-cons in order to come out on top (meanwhile, both candidates are lifelong Democrat-voting civic activists who could be engaging the public about meaningful issues).
To give you an illustration of when this tactic proved especially effective, and was actually true for once, BillPantele came from behind in the 2nd district City Council race to beat Tom Benedetti by labeling him as a Bush supporter in 2004, because he worked as a fundraiser for the Republican party. Pantele’s election-eve attack ad mailers featured Benedetti’s picture alongside Bush’s and the saying “The Apple doesn’t fall far from the
tree Bush.” You’d have to see the pretty design to believe it (and you’ll see that I’m not claiming that my household is exempt from participating in such partisan behavior).
The maneuver of trying to “out Democrat” your fellow Democrats isn’t the real transgression against voters that’s being perpetrated here. Sure, incumbents are often impossible to unseat once their operation generates enough money, favors, and loyalty to manifest a formidable political machine. That’s an election reality all over the country. Signs appear everywhere. Opponents’ signs mysteriously disappear. Businesses start brandishing enormous expensive placards that make the challenger look amateurish. Palms are greased behind the scenes. It’s a fight, no doubt about it. But, we need to protect against short cuts and impertenant attacks in favor of our democratic principles. We’re trying to hire the best public servant for the job here.
And then there’s the circus of election day…
In many Richmond districts, the polling places on election day are swarmed with campaign workers. A quick survey will probably show incredibly lopsided representation of incumbent/Democrat-backed vs. the challenger: seven to one, ten to two, four vs. none. To a voter just hoping to spend 10 minutes there while voting, it almost seems like the election were “brought to you by” the incumbent candidate or the Democratic Committee backed candidate. And they generally do their best to give the impression that their information is official and unbiased, handing out Democratic Committee sample ballots like they were instruction manuals. Hey, if you were doing a good job in office or running a convincing campaign, would you need to resort to cheap tactics and circumvent a substantive discussion of the issues?
Of course, with Democrats generally being in power in Richmond, their information is somewhat official and helpful when it comes to the state and national races… but not the local elections. That’s where it gets nefarious.
The content of the campaign workers materials gives the best indication of undemocratic behavior in Richmond’s local elections. In Richmond, each candidate hopes to get endorsed by the Democratic Committee. With this valuabledistinction , a candidate can put their name on the local Democratic Committee sample ballot that so many voters use to vote a straight ticket, often without any knowledge of the performance or platforms of the candidates for municipal office. As every voter on their way into the voting booth is handed one, two, and sometimes three or more Democratic Committee sample ballots, it becomes pretty clear that the playing field is not level. Feelings of party loyalty are at acrescendo on voting day, especially during presidential elections. And so, if a local official wants to compensate for lackluster performance, or a series of public debacles, or simply coasting and not campaigning, then it’s a big relief to simply ride the coattails of the top of the ticket Democrats.
These aren’t big “what if” scenarios. The school board and city council elections are currently set to take place every four years, at the same time as the presidential races. From here on out,the presidential race will cast a long shadow over our local elections and without attention on the local issues to be decided by voters, the local Democratic Committee will virtually decide each race before the voting actually takes place. The impact of the significant surge in voters who are
uninformed about the local races has been significant. On November 4th, I heard some campaign workers for Dwight Jones saying that even though their candidate was endorsed by the Democratic Committee, his opponent BillPantele was advertising his own name on Democratic Committee sample ballots (or were they just look-alikes? not quite sure). Does this offend you? Should it? Maybe more candidates should have thought of this move. (I determined my mayoral vote before the endorsement, although that’s irrelevant).
So, what is the criteria for endorsement by the local Democratic Committee? I have a guess, largely based on my own observations. TheDems are trying their best to activate their base on national election day. So, they throw their support, and their get out the vote funds, to the candidate with the best capacity to turn out scads of likely Democrat voters. For this reason, established names likeincumbents, or School Board candidates who are virtually appointed by their City Council rep (the Robertson/Smith ticket, anyone) become obvious choices for
Democratic party support. And merit has nothing to do with it. A track record of community activism, service to the constituents, and professional performance have little to do with the Democratic endorsement. Even if the school system is maligned for every day of your term in office, the Democratic Committee will overlook such things as the education of Richmond children, so they can continue to build their brand. The public interest seems like just an afterthought, half-heartedly pursued between election seasons.
Does this sound jaded? Well, that’s what it feels like to have a democratic victory tinged with undemocratic electioneering.
Since this rant is totally unpolished and didn’t benefit from my full attention (baby-work-school taking precedent), let’s get into the meat of this topic in the comments, shall we?