By MICHAEL TAVOLIERO
One of the more difficult topics to capture the public’s interest in is how certain political taboos originated. I’m writing about nonpartisan municipal elections in the United States, and how and why they developed.
This topic is like the debate in the Sean Connery movie, “The Name of The Rose.” Set in the early 14th Century, Franciscan William of Baskerville, played by Connery, and his Benedictine novice travel to a monastery in northern Italy to participate in a major ecclesiastical debate at the time: Did Jesus and the Disciples own their own clothes?
A 21st Century reply might be, “Who cares?”
But here’s today’s question: Has our current nonpartisan municipal elections become a conduit for creating a country with a national debt headed to $50 trillion, the worse outcomes in public education, and the most corrupt redistribution of our tax dollars in the history of the world?
How did this all begin?
It started toward the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. The reason for nonpartisanship in municipal elections was to promote focus on community-specific issues, rather than national party politics. The thought was, if you were an “R” or a “D,” you were more likely to be concerned with national party politics than wanting to fix potholes or fight local crime.
In the turn of the 20th Century, nonpartisan elections were marketed as a way to develop strong local governance without the domination of city politics promoted by the urban-centric party machines. This was a progressive model for utopian political equity.
As a result, nonpartisan municipal elections were brought firmly about by the Progressives’ insistence that most of the late 19th and early 20th Century cities faced issues of corruption by the very political machines that controlled local government, through favoritism and crooked patronage.
This brought us the current era of the industrialization of municipal entities: Large urban centers controlled by small groups of people managing the redistribution of local tax dollars, which subsequently control the states in which these cities reside. Today, examples abound with New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
In the early 1900s, there was a mix of trust and skepticism in local government, just like there is now. The Progressive Era (late 19th to early 20th century) saw efforts to address issues such as corruption, inequality, and the influence of powerful interests by offering remedies such as nonpartisan local elections. More government regulations were marketed to the public to fix this, and the voters bought it.
The remedy brought with it several changes to how local government was managed in America. It helped to create the advent of professional municipal management. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that professional municipal management has done anything favorable to municipal efficiencies and effectiveness. Such management has evolved with the focus on employment security for municipal employees, rather than municipal services to the public.
In part, this presented a foothold for local identity to be managed by small groups of councils or assemblies in huge populations rather than small more efficient local governance models managed by active public involvement.
Nonpartisan elections left voters with the inability to discover candidate political ideologies at a glance of a letter after each candidate’s name. That opened the door to large, non-party organizations promoting candidates loyal to their organizations. It reduced civic engagement as respective political parties did not have the seat at the table of the discussion of local challenges and ideas. This further fostered voter disillusionment, resulting in inhibited competition, choice, and apathy.
It is critical at this point of our discussion to note that local government, then and now, controls the most useful tool for political change: public education. What have non-partisan municipal elections done for American education?
The advent of nonpartisan municipal elections brought promises of improved efficiencies and professionalism to local government. These promises promoted the American values of localism, which addressed the unique needs of the respective communities. The result of these promises underdelivered meaningful features and benefits to local communities and instead created an hegemony in power and control.
The Municipality of Anchorage is one example that showcases hegemony.
Have nonpartisan municipal elections improved our American model? Many would still argue against the changing the status quo, but with over 125 years of experience, perhaps we might now want to consider the alternative: Partisan municipal elections.
Michael Tavoliero is a senior contributor at Must Read Alaska.