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City Commission race is already well underway

By Bill Felber

The election is 81 days away. We won’t even know the full field for about 90 more hours. But that hasn’t deterred candidates from gearing up one of the fastest starts in memory to the race for three seats on the Manhattan City Commission.

It may only be mid-January, but one candidate has already launched a political advertising campaign, a second has published a column criticizing his opponents, and at least two more have released detailed, multi-page platforms.

Unless a primary is required to narrow the field — and there hasn’t been one in more than a decade — that kind of activity usually isn’t seen until early March.

There are two reasons for the early activity. The first is the desire for name recognition. That appears to be John Ball’s motivation in launching a radio advertising campaign this week, the messages designed to acquaint Ball with potential voters. Ball was also the first to declare for the Commission, doing so more than a month ago.

The second reason is a desire to stake out an identity on the political spectrum, notwithstanding that the city vote is at least nominally non-partisan. But plenty of issues in recent years have appeared to cross the non-partisan line. There was the passage, and later the repeal, of a gay rights ordinance, both taking place along perceived liberal-conservative lines. There was — and continues to be — debate over funding of social services, with its echoes of the national “role of government” debate. And most recently there has been the split vote over the size and scope of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, much of that discussion splitting on “small government” versus “big government” lines.

Beyond that, three of the seven declared candidates — Democratic former county commissioner Karen McCulloh, Republican 2006 House candidate Bob Strawn and Democratic 2012 state school board candidate Usha Reddi — have already run in partisan elections.

Even before filing his candidacy — apparently before he even decided to run — former commissioner Strawn stoked some of the early campaign momentum. In an editorial column published last week in the Free Press, a weekly free distribution newspaper, Strawn called out the declared candidates at that time for not taking detailed enough stances on a range of issues. He noted that one, Dan Hogan, had to that moment defined himself on only one issue — the relatively second-tier one of dangerous dogs. Strawn criticized Ball for what he viewed as the shallowness of Ball’s introductory ads, which touted his military background, and lit into McCulloh for what he viewed as her advocacy of liberal causes.

“Is this what the upcoming City Commission campaign is going to be about? Lassie, Patton and windmills?” Strawn asked. A few days later he proceeded to answer his own question by filing for the race.

Hogan reacted to Strawn’s slap this week by publishing his own campaign platform, one that in several respects appeared to align him with Strawn’s essentially conservative reputation. Among other things, it called for prioritizing an examination of possible spending cuts ahead of tax increases. “Before additional taxes are enacted, or even considered, the government should determine where spending cuts can be made to avoid increases,” Hogan declared.

But Hogan went beyond that, challenging city laws governing the concealed carry and discharge of firearms. He said those ordinances “attempt to override state laws and prevent constitutional rights through their wording.” He specifically called for repeal of the prohibition on concealed carry.

He declared himself against the construction of additional roundabouts, and said he would only support a proposed sculpture atop the Fourth and Bluemont roundabout if it is funded privately. “If this project is to be covered by public funds … I recommend a simple stone obelisk as the topping,” Hogan declared.

Hogan said he supported public transportation.

Deb Nuss, who joined the race the same day as Strawn, also issued a platform. A former school board member who ran unsuccessfully for a city seat in 2009 — she finished fifth in an eight-person race — Nuss called for ensuring that growth didn’t become a burden on property tax payers. “Residents shouldn’t have to pay all the costs of future growth. Developers and businesses should pay too,” she declared.

She also appeared to align herself with efforts of the city’s Living Wage Coalition to ensure that economic incentives are only granted to firms paying employees at certain levels. She said she wants businesses “lured to Manhattan because of the new federal laboratory to bring jobs that give residents economic security,” adding that “low-pay service jobs create more work for our already strained social services.”

Nuss echoed McCulloh’s support for local and regional cooperation, with specific references to relationships between the city and county and also between the city and the MPO. “Ongoing conflicts between the city and county only serve to erode trust that has taken years to establish and must end,” Nuss said.

McCulloh, who as a county commissioner increasingly found herself at cross-purposes with the City Commission’s recent rightward drift, had made some of the same points during her own announcement.

Strawn may have precipitated part of the early political activity by his newspaper column, but he didn’t limit himself to criticizing others’ campaigns. In throwing his own hat into the ring, the former commissioner called for active consideration of potentially one of the most heated topics of all, consolidation of local governments.

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