What If They Gave an Election, and Nobody Came?

by Joe Fitzgerald

This is the most open Harrisonburg City Council election in a generation, and nobody seems interested.

Barely 300 people turned out Saturday to choose the Democratic nominees, and the Republicans have been silent. Only one obscure independent has emerged. If nothing happens between now and June 21, the race effectively ended this weekend. There are no incumbents on the ballot for the first time since 1994.

This would be the year for strong and determined independents to take the field. There are several reasons for that.

One is that the Democratic Party in Harrisonburg suffers from the same problem as James Madison University and the city government. We grew too fast. It wasn’t that long ago that we were a chicken town with a teachers’ college and the Democratic Party still had Byrd-era holdovers. The party’s nominating processes are well run and fair, but not big enough. The party’s nominees come out of the gate with an advantage in a city that votes 60% Democratic, but 300 people is not enough to decide representation for 25,000 voters.

I’m a strong Democrat, SD in the databases. I’ll vote “Dem good Pub bad” in a state or federal race because the party is more honest and more in alignment with my views on guns, health, foreign policy, race, and common decency. But those issues aren’t part of a Harrisonburg City Council election.

In 2004 council members, including me, had to learn a great deal in a short time about radio systems. The difference between 8MHz and 4MHz was important, almost critical for a while, because it made a large financial difference. Divining the intentions of a consultant was important, because it wasn’t clear if he was selling us a product or giving us advice. Judging a fellow council member was important, because he had much more knowledge of the physics of the system, but tended to be argumentative and disruptive by nature.

I haven’t had to worry about a MHz since, I couldn’t pick the consultant out of a lineup, and I haven’t spoken to the councilman since we left office. But for a couple of months, I had to know the topic and the personalities. Judgment, knowledge, and mother wit were more important than political leanings.

That’s not to say there’s no difference in the parties. Democrats are more likely to vote for education funding, the largest expense for a locality. Republicans are more likely to say the city should be run like a business, which is quite frankly nonsense. (Fiduciary responsibility would force the city business to sell or close the police and fire departments and the schools.) The argument the city-as-business people should make is that we need people who’ve actually run something.

I had run a newsroom when I was elected. One of those elected with me had run a soccer league and the other had run his mouth, but there was some experience in process and organizational norms. One of Saturday’s nominees was chased off the school board for inaccurate election filing and currently chairs a body that effectively answers to no one. The other has led the local chapter of a national organization, but those inside the group might express strong feeling about how well it was run.

We need people, independent or party, who value pragmatism over ideology. And we need people who know the difference between pragmatism and cynicism, and the difference between opportunity and opportunism.

This would be the year for people who are concerned, in the words of an ancient Greek poet, about what is right and good for their city, and are willing to sacrifice the time, treasure, and energy to work for those concerns.

This will be a non-party election year to the extent there is no race for President or U.S. Senate on the ballot, which happens only every 12 years. There’s a Congressional race but, spoiler alert, the Republican is going to win by 20 points. This can be the first truly local election since the municipal vote was moved from May to November, with turnout driven not by state or federal campaigns but by local concerns.

The deadline is June 21 for a candidate to file the 125 signatures required to be on the ballot. The deadline is reportedly August 19 to file in the special election to replace Hirschman. In a city of more than 50,000 people, there should be more than a handful of people who want to determine their city’s course and future. But they need to run.

This column has been republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping.

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3 responses to “What If They Gave an Election, and Nobody Came?”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    It is not uncommon for there to be little interest in local elections, both in attracting candidates and among voters. There is just not as as much cachet involved in being a member of city council as there is in being in the General Assembly or Congress. That is ironic because it is local government that probably has the most direct effect on residents.

    And you are right in this being a perfect year for anyone interested to run. Running against an incumbent is difficult for any office, but there are no incumbents this year for the Harrisonburg city council elections.

    It sounds as if it is time for you to saddle up again, Joe.

  2. vicnicholls Avatar

    “Republicans are more likely to say the city should be run like a business, which is quite frankly nonsense. ” Nonsense. There is a huge difference in running something ‘like’ a business and throwing money away. Fiscal responsibility at ALL levels of govt.

  3. Ben Slone Avatar
    Ben Slone

    The Citizens of the Commonwealth should not be forced to pay for party election contests.

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