Published on October 17th, 20120
Chris Ladd: The Most Important Race of Our Lifetimes
This November you may be voting in the most important election of our lifetimes, but which contest on your ballot is the one that will change history? Every four years, the bulk of our attention is devoted to the one race in we each have the least influence. Meanwhile the really pivotal elections, the ones that determine the shape of our political landscape, are often hiding where we least expect them.
In 1996, a small-town city councilman ran for mayor on a novel strategy. Bypassing boring issues of sales tax collection or zoning, she ran on religion, abortion and gun control. Flouting the legally non-partisan character of the office she won official partisan backing. Out of that election, Wasilla, Alaska got “it’s first Christian mayor,” Sarah Palin.
San Francisco City Supervisor, Harry Britt, had plans in in 1987 to take his popularity to Congress. Commonly referred to as “the Mayor of Castro Street,” Britt had solid backing in the city and only needed to defeat a party operative who had never held a public office. Britt narrowly lost his primary race to Nancy Pelosi. That fall she won her seat with fewer than 20,000 votes.
Alice Palmer promised in 1995 to step down from the Illinois State Senate in pursuit of an open Congressional seat. When shot lost her special election for Congress she reneged on her promise and decided to run for re-election to the State Senate. At the last minute she submitted a slapdash petition filled with mostly ineligible signatures. The courts invalided her petition and kicked her off the ballot. In 1996 her seat was won by a young law professor and community organizer named Barack Obama.
The Presidential race is to American democracy what Easter Sunday is to church. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to reach out and showcase the values and meaning of the institution to a group of people who may be only barely engaged. On the other hand, it’s a chance to fill the building with uninvolved people who won’t be here next week to contribute their time, energy, or money to keep the operation running.
The race for the Presidency is so far removed from our day to day lives that we feel like we can afford to treat it like a game. No one decides to become a Redskins fan this year because they’re fielding a fantastic new offensive line. We root for our team, based mostly on which team we were raised on, without any regard for who is actually better.
Meanwhile, farther down the ballot are races that will determine what a President can and cannot do. Those races decide what happens to our local schools, whether we will go to work on highways or trains, how much we’ll pay in property or sales taxes.
Lurking there in the confusing thicket farther down our ballots are races where our votes count enormously. Somewhere north of 200 million people will cast a vote for President this year. In Texas, a Legislator will probably need about 25,000 votes to win.
This fall, perhaps the man or woman who will restore the Republican Party to sanity is on your ballot, running for County Commissioner or the Legislature. The choices we make in races all over the ballot, in elections happening all over the country, construct the pond in which our senior politicians swim. The more principled and rational that field of officials is, the better our system at large will function. The goofier they are, well, you know…
So how does a busy person with a job, kids and commitments get the information they need to navigate the uncharted down-ballot? Like a lot of things, it’s easier than it used to be and harder than it used to be.
In Houston there are some outstanding resources available. Democrat Charles Kuffner and Republican David Jennings are doing the hard work, day in and day out, of combing through the muck and providing insightful, intelligent information about local candidates in their Chronicle blogs. Each of them also maintains their own independent blogs, Off the Kuff and Big Jolly Politics. Since they are free to vent their opinions, they are in many ways a stronger source of background on these campaigns than objective reporters can provide.
Unfortunately, the same political environment that gave us Jennings and Kuffner has given us endless sources of distortion, paid endorsements, and junk. There is no short-cut to due diligence and no flashing light on the ballot screen to point out The Most Important Election Of Our Time. We are each on our own to filter and evaluate our choices as best we can. It takes effort, but it’s worth the trouble. If we want better government, we’ll have to earn it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years.