20 May 2011

Fun with Local Politics

I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague, the Hon. J.L.:
The question, from a backbencher: "Following local politics --- worthwhile or not?"
The answer: Worthwhile.
Strange as it may sound, I've become a lot less interested in politics as I've become a political scientist. Since moving to Washington for grad school, I stopped following politics back home, and never took an interest in local politics in D.C. I also haven't voted, being unregistered in D.C. and probably not a qualified elector back in Florida.
So it's been fun to pay attention to local politics again. I've spent the past week in Jacksonville, FL visiting friends and family. In the city's municipal elections on Tuesday, Jacksonville residents elected their first black mayor in a stunning upset. At the same time, District 1 voters reelected a controversial young city commissioner with a promising career in Republican politics ahead of him who, depending on your perspective, is either a theocratic zealot or a faithful Christian serving courageously in public office.
In the mayoral race, local businessman Alvin Brown defeated Mike Hogan, Duval County's Clerk of the Courts, for the seat being vacated by term-limited Mayor John Peyton. This race was never supposed to be close. High profile Republican figures were being assured of Hogan's victory. Hogan, a Republican, took a beating in the media and in the polls for dodging a debate. Apparently everyone in Hogan's camp thought it was a sure thing. Instead, this one-third black Southern city with a particularly nasty history of race relations celebrated the election of its first ever black mayor.
In political science, we are fond of aggregate--level voting models suggesting that partisanship and economic conditions are all that matter, and that campaigns and candidates make no difference. But in local elections -- even a runoff like this one with 37% turnout -- little things can make a big difference.
Skipping a debate is a risky decision. While you don't want to legitimize a trivial candidate by debating him, you risk seeming presumptuous if you decline to debate a serious candidate. The story in Jacksonville seems to be that Hogan made some mistakes and Brown, a Democrat, capitalized on all of them, all the while courting and winning support from key Republicans. In the end, Hogan's arrogant, tea party-themed campaign may have lulled his rapidly dwindling base of angry white suburbanites into thinking their votes were not needed, all the while alienating the more moderate factions of his coalition. But let this be a lesson: as lame as debates may be, don't skip them. The campaign turned on local issues, of course, but Republican candidates would be wise to learn from Hogan, who hitched his wagon to the tea party movement, all the while risking enduring some serious retaliation from voters disgusted with the GOP legislature and the wildly unpopular conservative policies of Hogan's co-partisan, Gov. Rick Scott.
In the other race I mentioned above, Councilman Clay Yarborough cruised to reelection, buying enough time to wait for a seat in the Florida Legislature to open up. Presumably, he won't campaign for higher office on his best-known position -- opposition to gays and Muslims holding public office -- but he seems to be enough of a true believer that I wouldn't put it past him.
Yarborough became embroiled in a controversy last year over his questioning of the (Republican) mayor's nominees to the city's Human Rights Commission. Parvez Ahmed, a professor at the University of North Florida, reluctantly responded to Yarborough's questions about gay marriage and the role of religion in public life and ultimately received Yarborough's approval in committee. Another nominee, a law professor, declined to answer Yarbrough's questions and was summarily blocked.
The next week, a journalist posed a similar line of questions to Yarborough. Asked if homosexuals should be allowed to hold public office in Florida, Yarbrough said he "would prefer they did not." As for Muslims, he admitted he "doesn't know." While this response is alarming from a legal/constitutional perspective, the lack of certainty is refreshing to hear from someone who otherwise seems so absolutely convinced of the rightness of his positions. In the end, Yarborough voted against Ahmed when his nomination came before the full city council. In fairness, it was another council member who turned the final vote on Professor Ahmed's nomination into an embarrassing spectacle.
Yarborough ultimately voted against putting Ahmed on the Commission, implying that Ahmed was connected to terrorist groups. (Professor Ahmed's nomination was eventually approved 13-6). It's kind of a shame that Yarborough is best known for his bizarre, discriminatory views on this one issue, an obscure, low-level nomination. In 2007, a local alternative newsweekly ran a fairly favorable profile, portraying Yarborough as an independent-minded and hardworking young politician. Fundamentalist quirks aside, Yarborough is in every way an unusually responsive and engaged public servant. He has shaken up the old-boy network and worked tirelessly for his constituents. After learning more about him, I'm torn between wondering if he should be stopped or encouraged.
In national politics, it's often hard to see how one official, one candidate, one campaign, one volunteer, or one voter can make a difference. But locally, things really are different. Every day, city councils, county commissions, and school boards spend our money and make importnat decisions that impact our lives. I commend those who are serving the public interest in these mostly unglamorous offices. This week in Jacksonville -- 700 miles outside the Beltway -- I've been reminded anew of both the promise and perils of politics.

No comments:

Post a Comment