Before she was in Congress, Michele Bachmann was a state senator, and before that, pertinent to the title of this post, she was on her local school board. The fact I don’t have to explain who she is might demonstrate the importance of that one school board race.
It might appear at this point that the importance of local races is stopping crazy people from getting their start in elective office. Not that I’m saying everyone in local elective office is crazy. Just the Republicans. Yes, that’s an overgeneralization. Not all are Bachmann-wannabes. Local offices are, however, the primary bench for candidates for higher office. My impression, which I hope is wrong, is that Republicans are well aware of this while Democrats largely ignore local offices. I mean that in terms of turning out on election day, researching candidates prior to seeing their names on a ballot, and of course in actually running for office. It’s too late to do anything about the last one for 2014, but there’s still time for the first two. We concede these races to Republicans at our peril, as they get to build a bench of people with electoral office while us, not so much.
That’s without even thinking about how local officials do their jobs and affect our lives, apart from their future electoral possibilities. They don’t get national media coverage, much, but when they do, it highlights the effect they can have; the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, for example. Think the Democrats and independents who skipped last year’s election regret it now? Know how often this happens and we never hear about it? Me neither.
And just to not overlook the obvious, Ferguson, MO: a mostly black and Democratic city, a mostly white and Republican city council, and really low turnout in local elections. Though not equally low across partisan and demographic groups. Think that might explain some things?
Then there’s the effect of the explosion of dark money. We worry about the presidency and Congress being bought, but I’m thinking we saw in 2012 that there’s a limit to how much spending in a presidential race does any good, and I’m skeptical about its benefits beyond a certain point in US Senate races too, but down the ballot is different. It takes little money to swamp a local race. I’m thinking of that referendum in Columbus, Ohio, to raise local taxes to fund the Columbus Zoo. It failed when supporters were surprised and grossly outspent by Koch brothers money, which was used to tell voters their taxes would double when the actual increase was something like 1%. The referendum failed because the Kochs, despite having no connection, just felt ideologically offended and saw a chance to beat a tax increase with a bit of money and a bit of lying, and that was in a big city. Think of the anecdotes you’ve heard of some mayor getting on getting on the bad side of some special interest, and the low spending local race is suddenly hit with massive outside money, like Richmond, CA, where the mayor has $22,000 while his opponent has $1.3 million, courtesy of Chevron:
We’re having a hotly contested race the two at-large school board seats in Minneapolis and it’s drawn a little national attention for the fight over, depending on how you view it, expanding charter schools or privatizing public education. It’s again the exception that proves the rule, because what was the last Minneapolis election to get any national media? There was laughter at our 2013 mayoral race because our combination of an open seat and a $20 filing fee drew in 30-something candidates, but otherwise, that’s it for attention. And that’s in a city the size of Minneapolis. The only time I can recall St. Paul’s elections being noticed was when nominally DFL Mayor Randy Kelly endorsed George Bush in 2004, so some national media were watching as he got blown out in 2005. Those are the only instances I know of for cities the size of Minneapolis and St. Paul, so how much can we count on the media telling us about our own local races?
The answer is “not much”.