For the last several years, folks unhappy with the current city administration have asked about whether the City should switch to non-partisan local elections.  The logic I’ve heard includes:

  • all the folks running for Council as Democrats aren’t really DEMOCRATS;
  • someone (other than the person talking with me) hand selected these candidates so they would accomplish an agenda that isn’t mine;
  • having a primary in August is just an effort to disenfranchise the student voters;
  • I don’t like voting for Democrats, and want more competition.

There was a time when almost all the elected city representatives were Republicans.  Democrats fought to win one or two seats a year, but also challenged in primaries.  More than once I helped recruit a candidate for City Council who had no intention of serving, and no desire to campaign.  I even recruited mayoral candidates who felt like that.  But the Democratic party tried to field a full slate of candidates in every election, and tried hard not to have primaries – because primaries divide activists, and it’s hard for them to unite behind the winner.

I never heard a Democrat — back in those bad old days — talk about how non-partisan elections would allow liberal folks to take over local politics.  Instead, I kept hearing Democrats worry that they were too liberal and needed to adopt certain Republican views if they wanted to be competitive.

Really.   Republican views.

What were those views?  Some called them ‘fiscally conservative’ but what it seemed to me they meant was a government that concerned itself less with the economic needs of the residents and more with efforts to remove services from the government.  All disguised as ‘running the government like a business’.

In 1992, members of the Democratic Party became impatient.  The 1980 redistricting had resulted in not one or two, but three or four competitive wards.  The Democrats had elected three Democratic mayors between 1976 and 1992: Al Wheeler, Ed Pierce and Liz Brater.  Since most mayors (historically) have served only one term, the good news was that the mayor’s race had become more competitive. 

I know.  It’s hard to remember local events of the last century.  But here’s a link to the list of mayors and their dates of service.  And prior to the current mayor, the longest-serving mayor was William E. Brown, Jr., serving for 12 years between 1945 and 1957.  Lou Belcher, one of those Republicans who irritated the local Democrats, only served 9 years. (He served out the rest of Al Wheeler’s second term, a direct result of the 1-vote election of 1977.  It was that controversy that got me involved in local politics.)

Politics is a slow process, and humans become impatient.  Several Democrats wanted to take advantage of the higher vote-for-Democrats in November elections, and initiated a petition drive to change the City’s charter.  Like all voter-initiated efforts in our community, this petition was not embraced by local elected officials.  The signers to the petition were numerous enough that it was added to the November ballot — and November voters changed the City charter.

So Ann Arbor’s election was moved to November (with an August primary).  Back in those bad old days, Ann Arbor held elections every couple of months: February (primary for April), April (general for local elections), June (school board), August (primary for November state elections) and November (general for state and national elections).  By eliminating the spring campaign, the city saved a little money, and Democrats were increasingly likely to be elected.  Within a decade, Republicans were pretty much locked out of public office.

Does that mean elections became non-partisan?  Of course not.  Instead, the Democratic Party divided upon itself.  There are ‘Council Party’ Democrats, so-called because, back in the last decade (around 2003-2007) the Council ignored the local Democratic organization and selected candidates who all ran uncontested.  (Look again at the ’70s and ’80s, and you’ll notice a real reluctance for Democrats to engage in primaries, because winning a general election was so hard.  That lesson lasted for years.)

In 2006, candidates were running in primaries.  The folks endorsed by the ‘Council Party’ were challenged by others who represented neighborhoods, or just themselves.  (Steve Kunselman won a three-way primary; he was endorsed by the Council Party; Ron Suarez won a primary against John Roberts, also endorsed by the Council Party.)

But we’re an impatient breed.  Some of us think that non-partisan races would result in better candidate selection.  Please.

Getting someone to run for office when politics are contentious and the budget isn’t flush is terribly difficult.  Being on Council isn’t glamorous or powerful — at least, in my experience.  But it is true that folks will recruit others to run for Council because they like them, they believe they think alike, and they want them to fight for ‘my issues’.

When a Council member votes one way because a fellow member of Council ‘needs support’, that’s partisanship.  When a candidate seeks support from friends, neighbors, elected officials — well, that’s partisanship, too.  We all choose sides. 

Maybe being labeled a Democrat is only part of the story.  But if being an Ann Arbor Democrat doesn’t define a set of positions, it’s really because the local Republicans stopped trying.  OF COURSE the Democrats divided upon themselves; there was no one else to fight.  Is Barak Obama liberal enough for you on this single issue?  If not, reject him — that’s the rhetoric I hear.

The loyal opposition, if it doesn’t want to be Democrat, should consider being something else.  I vote they consider calling themselves Republican, because that’s easy for my tired brain to accept.  But of course, I only vote for Democrats — and have, ever since that fated 1977 election, and Lou Belcher’s demand that folks tell who they voted for.

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3 Responses to partisanship

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