Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dems Wrecking Democracy in RVA?

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.

Important points:
  • 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?


  1. I think your comments are right on. But keep in mind the competition. Who was bankrolling Grey? Republicans who did not even live in the City. And Pantele? He was hardly "the People's Mayor", more like the Developers' Mayor.

    Goldman, former Democratic Party state chairperson, skillfully negotiated the election. I might resent him for it except for the threat of a Pantele win.

    Also, if there was a referendum on IRV, instant runoff voting for Mayor, I was assured that the Democrats in the GA would squash it.

    So, yes, I am in agreement with you. More electoral reform is needed, locally AND nationally.

  2. Thanks Scott. I knew I could count on you to chime in (and mention IRV). But this is so much bigger than the mayoral race. The city is supposed to have a balance of powers between the mayor, city council, and school board. All elected. Now, they'll be "all selected."

    I'm not trying to get a fair hearing for Republican candidates. They probably deserve unpopularity in Richmond and all of Virginia, as far as I'm concerned. I just want to see a more level playing field for our local races. Right now, the process is virtually rigged.

    The Democratic Committee should be celebrating the merits of all of those candidates who seek their support, rather than throwing their weight (and campaign funds and volunteers and big-wig supporters) behind whoever they deem to be the big dog in the race. How will we ever be able to enforce accountability through the ballot with that behemoth tipping the scales?

  3. The Times Dispatch suggested the same thing you are, that the Democratic Party should never have even attempted to endorse a municipal race (and then the paper endorsed also- notably it endorsed Pantele after earlier implying he was not fit to serve on City Council).

    Again, I am not disagreeing with you. I was not surprised but I was annoyed by the first attempt at endorsement by the City Democratic Committee that was more like a bum rush. On the other hand, I was glad that Jones had the endorsement in the end so that he did beat the competition.

    My cynical side says all of these races become tainted by partisanship at some point, no matter what the official rules are. If its not the Democrats, then its the Fan District Association or the Coalition for a Greater Richmond or the Richmond Crusade for Voters or some other stand-in for groupthink with their own twisted agendas.

    In Richmond, things have always been rigged by the people with the money. Goldman may have been the least beholding to anyone yet he sure knows how to work the rigged system and he is still very loyal to the Democratic Party.

    Well, you could always help the Green Party grow its influence to counter the Republicrats and/or find more nonaligned candidates for the future.

    Look, people say that I went from Wilder right back to Marsh's camp by eventually voting for Jones, but I keep hoping that its not so simple as that and Jones will do more to work for citizens than the other candidates would have.

    What's important is that people know that The Mayor is responsible for the City as elected by all of its citizens, and not just 9 different little mayors dithering away on Council. Make him work for that big salary (though I hear the City's Public Library Director, Harriet Henderson, makes almost as much).

  4. I've been thinking along the same lines. I was so pissed about those "Sample Democratic Ballots" that I asked Pantele about them as I was standing in line (for two and a half hours) at Randolph Community Center. He was working his way down the line kissing babies when I asked him why his campaign could distribute such misleading information at polling places. He responded that, "Robert (Grey) and I protested the endorsement... All of us running for Mayor are Democrats, so if you're a Democratic voter in Richmond you have lots of good choices".

    Is that really true? I must say that our mayoral race was one of the more engaging political races I've seen, largely because local bloggers (whom Mr. Pantele dislikes so much) kept the focus on issues.

    I believe the answer is more of what we saw in this local election: dialogue driven by the people, not the campaigns. If we work hard enough, a candidate who's worth their salt can ride a wave of grassroots support over the endorsements of the has-been elephant and donkey parties.

  5. Nicely said, Rabbit. And thanks for contributing a quote from your voting experience. The fragility of our democracy is so evident on election day. Although I'm glad and proud that numerous Virginia constituencies and organizations mobilized to elect Obama, I think we need to embody the "change" we want to see. The sinister power grabs that pull the wool over the eyes of Richmond voters is despicable. Pantele and Grey protested the Dem endorsement, but I bet they would have defended it if they'd been endorsed. Because so many voters in presidential elections are eager to vote a straight ticket, those sample ballots undermine citizen engagement in the issues at hand. WWOD? What Would Obama Do?

  6. I think the question of party affiliation certainly grays the more local you get. Slapping a D or an R next to your name means more on a national or even state level than it does on a local level because as the needs get more local the ability to use a broad brush decreases so nuanced reactions need to happen, reactions that transcend partisan boundaries.

    So I think it's unfair for folks to try and read into political endorsements, but it's going to happen. There are a very large number of individuals who only turn out to the polls once every four years and they look for that D or R next to the name as a guideline on how to vote. In a year like this one that certainly helps the Ds more than the Rs.

    In the case of the Mayor's race, when there is no D or R, you have to convince folks that it should be there to milk those crossovers as much as possible, especially in a race as close as this one was getting.

    Political labels are easy. It turns a gray into a black or a white. So saying Jones was backed by the Richmond Democrats, Gray was backed by Republican money, you can black and white those and go from there.

    But it's when you get past the party labels and look at the whys that you get back to the grays. Ideally those decisions were backed by policy issues, and THAT is what should influence this election.

    Did the Democrats endorse Jones because they preferred his policies concerning Richmond or his affiliation? Did Bobby Scott hold a big money fundraiser for him outside of the city because of his policies or his political affiliation?

    Did Republican money flow to Gray because of his political affiliation or because his political policies would prove beneficial to their agenda (which may or may not match a nationwide "Republican" agenda)?

    The bloggers asked those questions (for the most part), but it's hard to ask those questions as folks are walking into the polls and paying attention for the first time.

    While we may want political parties out of our local elections it's not going to happen. The DPRVA may decide not to endorse, but someone out there is going to do a tally of the political affiliation of candidate's supporters and bring them to light (again, Gray's Republican financing) and try and use that to make a partisan point.

    Because it's easy. And every vote counts. Especially in a race where we saw a 7000 vote undervote from President to Mayor.

  7. I think Obama comes from the grassroots camp, so I reckon he would say something akin to "stay the course", and never ever say anything like "mission accomplished".

    As FDR said, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it". That's our job now, to make sure Dwight earns that endorsement as well as our votes. I pledged to myself that if "The People's Mayor" was elected I would make it the most miserable job he's ever had; now that we're dealing with Dwight, we need to keep him honest and focused on the people's goals.

  8. Before the 2004 change to the popularly-elected/strong mayor system, Richmond's councilmanic elections were held in the spring.

    Turnout had gotten to be so bad that local elections were moved to November. The hope was to attract a better turnout.

    Now we see that a presidential election can overshadow/influence local elections.

    So, should all local elections be held in off-years, like 2009, when we elect a new governor? Or, maybe they should be moved back to the spring.

  9. Good question. Personally, I would rather see lower turnout than more "default voting" along party lines, carried by irrelevant national political tides. Voting is a basic right, but it's also a responsibility intended for those who know what they are voting for.

    Either spring polling or off-year would accomplish that goal, but now you're talking about changing the terms of those who just won their seats. I wonder how that would go over...

  10. I think off year makes sense - while it doesn't totally rid the race of partisan implications (given the odd years are state elections), it does guarantee a greater turnout than a May election would see. Also, state and local elections on the odd years have a greater local impact than federal elections, so it makes sense that they could be tied together.

  11. JK: Nice dissertation. All local races are grey issues. I know I'm one to talk, when I tend to apply my own black/white measures regarding party affiliation and "que se vayan todos" (all of them must go). But, since we're basically talking about a whole field of Dems running for City Council and School Board (I discount the city-wide mayoral circus because it's the district specific races that are vulnerable to undemocratic tampering by the RCDC - www.richmonddemocrats.org/).

    As much as I love Richmond's political blogosphere, we shouldn't overestimate our impact (although potential impact is another story). During a presidential election, loads of people, who are untouched by the blogs, turn out to vote and just want a cheat sheet. The candidate coasting to victory thanks to the RCDC endorsement are practically preying on the low information and literacy level voter. Only inspired grassroots efforts can reach those folks before election day. Otherwise, I would rather see the polling places equipped with an informational waiting room that can help those who would have depended on the dubious RCDC endorsement.

    This is all probably a fantasy on my part. I'm not trying to get politics out of the local elections. I'm trying to get competence into elected offices. In leiu of this outcome, I think Rabbit is right. Put their feet to the fire and make them work for us.

  12. And thanks, FT Rea, for the relatively recent historical context. I think many people miss these details until we see witness their consequences (or at least, that's my excuse). Rabbit, I'm sure if we asked city council and school board really nicely, some of them would agree to shorter terms. Or, maybe we could just assume that half of them will get caught embezzeling or fornicating within the first two years.

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  14. Brian Kirwin at Bearing Drift advocating against May elections - http://bearingdrift.com/2008/11/11/may-vs-november/

  15. Or, maybe we could just assume that half of them will get caught embezzeling or fornicating within the first two years.

    Yeah, we could call that "Political transformation through attrition".


  16. JK: Nice "May" piece. I'm not for voter suppression. I'm for voter education. So, thumbs down to May. November is when elections are expected, and with the Obama inspired community organizing ethic in mind, I think the newly energized grassroots should prioritize initiatives that increases civic engagement. Hopefully, there will be follow through on the political "change" message, and we'll see our local politcs evolve a bit. (as I write this, I'm reminded that Obama comes from the land of the most historic political machines: Chicago - but that doesn't mean he isn't advocating a new direction)

  17. Interesting discussion. I fairly recently moved here from Philly, where politics can be an all-out brawl. There it's even worse because each ward endorses their own ballot, and the only determining factor is how much money each candidate ponies up to the ward leaders. I quickly learned to simply ignore any and all "sample ballots" up there, and the same principle applies here. Anyone who relies on sample ballots as anything more than toilet paper is a fool.

    But, things can change. In Philly Michael Nutter, a Democrat (like 80% of Philly) won the mayoral election, but he was very much the anti-establishment reform candidate. Probably every liberal-leaning blog in the city, and some conservative ones, endorsed him over his challengers.

    That being said, I'm not sure the phalanx of people handing out sample ballots is anti-democratic-with-a-small-d. (BTW, there wasn't anyone that I saw at my Museum District polling place.) Nothing is to prevent the other parties from sending people there too. The only reason local Republicans didn't send people is because they didn't have as many campaign volunteers. It only becomes anti-democratic when there's actual harassment going on.

    I do like the suggestion of switching local elections to off-years, however.


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