At the beginning of the Republic, even founding father James Madison foresaw the danger of partisan politics, parties then being called “factions”. Here is the first sentence of Federalist paper number 10, among the most famous of the 85 Federalist papers:
“Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction”.
Got it? Partisanship leads to violence in Madison’s view, and in any case it is a poor way to get things done,
Let’s face it, the last thing we need is partisan politics to enter into local government races. There is enough that we disagree on without having to add yet another partisan layer onto local issue debates. The truth is that partisan policy debates are really most relevant in national politics and the more that that is injected into local, ie City Council and Supervisor races, the more difficult an already difficult job of governance is going to get.
A case in point would be Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce. Conservative republican, but governing in a county where farming protection is critical. There is a strong need to preserve agriculture and open space, not to promote development, policies typically associated with the left. In one crucial vote in an effort to protect large tracts of land near Pacific Union College in Angwin from future development, Luce voted to not only preserve open space but to downzone some of the land into agricultural use.
If Luce were to be challenged in a partisan primary by a development oriented Republican it is likely that he would lose, whereas keeping the primaries open to all voters assures that the majority in Napa who do want that land preserved can support their candidate. It also help keep Luce from being stuck in a partisan box with his voting.
An equivalent example from the other side in Napa County is Supervisor Keith Caldwell, a former city Fire Chief and Democrat from a heavily pro union district in the south county. Recently he had to take a vote to create a second tier of lowered pension benefits for safety employees, increasing the age of eligibility from 50 to 55, creating much needed savings in the budget.
With that vote too in a partisan primary he may well face a challenge, even though the majority of voters in the county agree with the decision to reduce pension benefits. It clearly shows that the need to get things done does involve governing from the middle and working toward agreements that leave the partisan fringes out of the process. The fear is that with increased partisanship comes increased disagreement and the loss of the ability to compromise. At that point, government breaks down and things don’t get done. Potholes aren’t Republican or Democrat, they just need to get filled.
Should a litmus test of partisan purity, and worse a demand that party affiliation be proven through a primary process consisting of nominations from each major party, an unhealthy extremism would enter into local races that will only serve to obstruct and complicate the governing process.
Another problem with partisan elections is that issues irrelevant to local governance, such as gay marriage, gun rights, or legalizing marijuana can take over a race to its detriment.
During the last Napa County supervisor race, the question of whether marijuana should be legalized came up over and over, despite the fact that County Supervisors have no control over its legality. When local voters start to focus on national issues rather than local issues it can only lead to even less voter involvement on the important local issues that they need to be concerned about.
Those who support partisan races in local government argue that minorities and poorly represented citizens will get left out of the process without parties to steer them to the voting booth. There is probably some truth to that, but what a sad statement on the state of involvement of voters in their local government.
Getting average citizens involved in local governance is a huge challenge and something that is sorely needed, but there are better ways to do that than having them rally around an extreme partisan position. When you look at who is actually promoting partisan local races it becomes instructive.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been attempting to change New York primaries from the current partisan structure back to a non partisan basis, spending over $7,000,000 of his own money in recent years to try to convince others to do so. Bloomberg has set up commissions to study the issue showing repeatedly that you get more competitive races that are better for the overall community with non partisan elections.
His main opponent? Reverend Al Sharpton, who fears losing some of his power in a system where extremism is muted by an open primary.
Soon Californians will find out for ourselves if non partisan elections produce better results, as the passage of Prop 14 last June creates a non partisan process for sending our representatives to Sacramento and Washington. Is there any doubt that it will be an improvement on the intense and dysfunctional partisanship we have now?
Michael Haley is a political columnist for the Napa Valley Register. Last year he was a candidate for Napa County Supervisor. Contact him at Michael@napablogger.com