Tomorrow (Sunday) is the equinox. It comes twice a year, when the sun crosses the equator, and night is, for all intents and purposes, the same length as day. This equinox heralds the death of summer and the birth of autumn, my favorite season.
It heralds something else, as it does three years out of every four, the closing stretches of the ultimate in popularity contests – political elections. What’s more, odd-year elections, like this one, are distinguished by their relentlessly local nature. No federal, no state, not even any county offices are up for grabs.
Only municipal offices, those of the incorporated towns and cities.
And it’s all of them. For unlike federal, state and county offices in which each election turns over only a portion of each body’s seats, presumably to ensure some kind of continuity, municipal elections throw the baby out with the bath water. Every seat on the Bloomington City Council is up, as is every elected office in every town.
Turnout on odd-year elections is traditionally dismal. In the last odd-year election (2003) only 12,000 votes were cast. The very next year, 2004 (a presidential election year), 50,000 voted in Monroe County. If you’re tempted to think that’s because only city and town residents can vote in odd years, don’t.
Seventy-five thousand people live inside the city of Bloomington and the towns of Ellettsville and Stinesville. That’s nearly two-thirds of the entire county population.
Dismal turnout conspires with ideological polarization to pretty much make the party politics of the county’s municipalities somewhat static. The wards of Ellettsville are overwhelmingly Republican, whereas Bloomington’s districts and the city itself trend heavily Democratic.
A good fight, a real contest, can still be had in county elections here. But I don’t think that’s true, really, of municipal ones. Sure, there are a couple of districts in Bloomington that can be won by Republicans, if they act sufficiently liberal.
But that’s kind of my point.
And that point is that it’s dismal. The Democrats in half of Bloomington’s city council districts have no Republican opponent. Neither does the Bloomington city clerk.
And there is only one Republican running for the three city council at-large seats.
Even more surprising are the situations in Ellettsville and Stinesville. Remember how I said Ellettsville’s wards were overwhelmingly Republican? Well they are, if the results of the last (2006) election can be believed. Same with Stinesville.
Yet the Republicans couldn’t find a candidate for either Stinesville’s or Ellettsville’s clerk/treasurer nor, staggeringly, for one of Ellettsville’s three town wards.
Between the two towns there are six elected offices. Democrats will walk, uncontested, into at least three of those offices in November. And two more of the offices are currently held by Democratic incumbents.
There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
Like I said, dismal. Because if an office-seeker has no competition, no opponent, then there is no need for the office-seeker to have a platform. No need for contrast, no need for rhetoric, no need for leadership.
When it extends to an entire party, when the party’s ideological opposite throws in the towel as the Monroe County Republican party appears to have done, the party turns on itself.
I’m not saying that’s happened, yet. But I’m a little worried.
The only Democratic candidate with any real competition, in Bloomington, is Jillian Kinzie. She also happens to have, especially given the short time frame of her campaign, a very well-defined platform. Competition is the mother of clarity.
But the rest of the Democratic city candidates either have no opponent at all, or have symbolic show opponents, opponents who have little or no chance of winning.
Which denies the Democrats, and the voters, an opportunity for contrast. City Democrats have much to be proud of, from the living wage ordinance to I-69 opposition. But, while they do a good job showcasing those accomplishments on Web sites and during stump speeches, without an opponent they have no call to justify, thus illuminate, them.
Which goes doubly for the Mayor. Kruzan may have a putative opponent in David Sabbagh, but no one, including Sabbagh, seems to feel that opponent credible. Kruzan managed to spend 60-something thousand dollars against the unelectable-in-any-circumstance Fred Prall four years ago.
This year Kruzan isn’t even bothering to put up a campaign Web site.
Slouching into the abyss
A county Democrat characterized this year’s municipal elections as a “snoozefest.” I’d be inclined to do the same thing were it not for the power of local government to impact local lives. The next four years will bring wrenching changes in the local economy and the local environment as demographic and fiscal trends collide against intensifying resource limits and climate change.
Those challenges will have to be met locally, and there is no evidence that either the state or federal governments have the resources or awareness to deal with them. Meeting those challenges means the community must be able to pick its best and brightest from among itself.
It can’t do that without contrast, without platforms, without rhetoric. Which is why I won’t be snoozing come November.
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.