Election Day always produces grateful winners and head-scratching losers. But was this election a wake-up call that could change the way business is conducted in the county?

Or will it mainly serve to restrain supervisors from staking out controversial positions for fear of alienating the voters? Does it mean that failed approaches will now be tossed out in favor of ones that are superior, or will bolder initiatives fall prey to political expediency, as usual?

Candidates rarely tackle issues that could hurt their chances at the polls. Thus, campaigns are typically run on dull platforms that will generate the least opposition. Since incumbents generally have finely tuned instincts for seeking out the safety zones, it is left to the challengers to carry the fight and hope opponents rise to the bait.

In the 1st District race between veteran Supervisor Susan Adams and her equally qualified challenger San Rafael Councilman Damon Connolly, that formula worked well, with Adams forced on the defensive early when her long and in many ways admirable record of community service proved no match for Connolly’s fresh-faced image and more palatable ideas.

Both camps did some negative campaigning, especially toward the end. However, the race was effectively decided long before Adams waffled on her stand on building affordable housing, which had triggered a recall movement that failed.

In the 5th District tilt between long-time supervisor Judy Arnold and the surprisingly potent newcomer, Toni Shroyer, making her first bid for elective office, the populist surge that felled Adams came just short of upending Arnold.

The incumbent’s razor-thin victory was attributable not only to Arnold’s political savvy and solid grasp of the facts, but to her self-composure in the face of attacks by her opponent.

Arnold’s narrow escape along with Adams’ trouncing sent a painful message other board members could not help to notice.

Yet in neither campaign did we see any real effort to engage the hot-button issues that go beyond the self-limiting concerns of voters in San Rafael and Novato. That is to be expected in district elections that reward officeholders adept at nurturing their narrowly based constituencies while avoiding thornier problems that demand more complex and statesmanlike solutions.

The housing dilemma is a perfect example. Few question the shortage of affordable housing, but not at the price of higher densities, more traffic, depleted tax revenues, dirtier air and the inevitable neighborhood disruptions.

With at-large elections perhaps the territorial battles that are getting nastier and more hazardous to a politician’s health, might give way to long term intra-community solutions that require maximum citizen participation long with a mix of public/private investment which could ease the housing crunch.

But no one on the board is talking about bold innovations.

While the Association of Bay Area Governments can be criticized as a meddlesome outsider dictating county housing policy and usurping local control, the bigger culprit is the lack of broader perspectives on the board, which under the current system unfairly pits supervisors against one another in order to placate their voters.

This creates fiefdoms though few real solutions.

As things stand there is little common ground on whether maintenance of the status quo produces healthier communities or merely exacerbates divisions. At-large elections might help to get at the root issues.

Election Day has come and gone, but did it really matter?

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Originally posted at the Marin Independent Journal and republished with permission of Richard Rubin.