The more polarized city race

The issues are driving it that way

By The Mercury

Idealists won’t like this, but the April City Commission race appears to continue and accelerate a trend toward full political polarity.

This may be in small part the fault of the candidates, but it is more likely an honest reaction to the times and issues that drive current discussion. Many of those issues have been radar-screened both nationally and here for years.

The simplest yet most complex of them bears on the role of government: limited vs. expanded. One can pick up local echoes of that recurring national controversy eight or 10 times a year.

The clearest illustration is the debate over funding for social service spending. Even before the local field had firmed up Tuesday, several candidates had laid out firm and specific positions related to that issue. Some advocate for a primary government role in ensuring such services while others contend that government has over-reached.

Candidates ought to lay out their positions on such controversial questions. It’s a matter of intellectual honesty with the voter. Yet doing so carries the inevitable consequence of appearing to align the candidate with one side or the other in the broader national “role of government” debate. These alignments may be accurate; that’s ultimately for voters to judge.

The impression is, if anything, encouraged by the fact that several have previously run in partisan elections. Former city and county commissioner Karen McCulloh as well as Usha Reddi have sought nomination — and in McCulloh’s case won election — as a Democrat, while former city commissioner Bob Strawn was a Republican legislative candidate. This isn’t the first time that a former candidate in a partisan race has sought election in a non-partisan one; McCulloh did so in 1997 and Strawn in 2007. But it is the first time the cross-breeding of partisanship and non-partisanship has occurred in such profusion.

And inevitably, a candidate having won a partisan mantle is likely to be identified as such.

None of this is necessarily a problem, but it may be unsettling when seen in the context of the traditionally non-partisan nature of the city’s election.

It may also be a passing moment in time. But coming on the heels of two previous City Commission elections that have produced de facto partisan shifts in the balance of power, it feels more like a trend than an event. Not to say this election will yield a shift in power. Indeed, it may merely reaffirm the existing balance. But either way the result vis a vis non-partisanship will be the same.

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