Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why do far-away citizens care about one lousy Assembly election in Milwaukee?

By Dominique Paul Noth


I had several themes when I wrote my article on the JohnHermes race for the State Assembly in District 82, but basically wanted to wake up the citizens in Franklin and Greendale (plus a sliver of Greenfield and tracts of the city) to a harsh reality. Given the holiday shopping date of the special election, December 17, they were in danger of being shanghaied by a minority who always shows up to vote way out of proportion to the community’s genuine rounded interests.

Unlike Brazil or many other countries where voting is high or nigh mandatory,  less than half the eligible US voters turn out for local, district or even statewide elections – a tragedy in itself.  But in this case, less than 5% could determine the new incumbent in the Madison legislature, as a similar sliver just did in nearby Assembly District 21.

However you lean in your philosophy, this is flat wrong and lazy. It robs reasonable and intelligent residents concerned about their communities a fair voice in their own future.

One of the larger themes in my article was political strategy around turnout  -- are we blaming those who run for public office for failures that are the consequences of our own ignorance, inattention or  indifference? The 82nd is shaping up as a precision attack on partisan gridlock at a horrible time for off-year elections. Hermes the Democrat is seeking out a middle ground emphasizing the need for locals to demand a bigger voice in Madison in the face of entrenched party machinery, power games and finances – all intrusions citizens said they loathed in my extensive interviews.  But then, again, few promised they would get to the polls Dec. 17 to express that loathing.

But there was another theme that, somewhat to my surprise, brought instant response by email, social media and phone calls from throughout Wisconsin and from states as far-flung as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, California and Georgia  where they don’t know John Hermes from Miley Cyrus.

Citizens and journalists had their own examples of local elections driven awry by special interests married to a simplistic narrative or kneejerk label.  One of the most popular labels seems this cry of “no new taxes!” to defeat any effort at local improvement. Yet the cry often comes from people uninformed of how badly their current tax burden already represents special interests running amuck that no one paid attention to.  Nor how that  “no new taxes” mantra actually destroys sensible corrections of current policy as well as new ways of generating jobs, revenue and the “quality of life” that taxes are supposed to be about.

 Legislative races don’t directly deal with local  taxes, but party labels propel some nonsensical  extremist views about lock-step tax and spend ideologies, as opposed to calculated correction and fresh ideas from individuals seeking public office. Meanwhile the “no new tax” cry drives to the polls a gaggle of government haters who don’t want politicians to do anything but follow their commands, whatever those may be.

The  messages to me  – and they came from devout conservatives as well as progressives  – provided  example upon example of what author and historian Thomas Frank explored in  his 2004 best-seller “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” how ideological exaggerations could get people to vote again and again against their own economic interests.

As one Appleton  correspondent told me,  this is not a right or left issue, but a case of whether sensible locally committed citizens show up at these “boring and wonkish” local elections (his description) to take back their municipal or state representation.  A colleague from Georgia shared an editorial about how unforeseen high turnout in a county election provided a surprisingly intelligent outcome:  “When there is a comparative strong turnout it is not the liberals that win, not even the progressives, but rather those who have thought about the matters at hand and reached their own conclusions.

From Pennsylvania as well as northeast Wisconsin  came details of how routine bond issues, property development, school expansions and the like were routinely defeated when 10% of the community controlled the ballot box. But several messages also celebrated the simple turn-around when a mere 30% of residents showed up to vote more reflectively about local needs.

No wonder the billionaires such as the notorious Koch brothers, the Walton family and other groups have shifted so much of their money away from failed national  frontal assaults (such as backing Romney) to targeting local elections, school board races, bond issues and the like.  It is here where citizens are hardest to rouse and a small committed group of ideologists can be stampeded to the polls against the desires of the community at large.

Frankly, though I sell to many outlets,  I had trouble pitching this story about the 82nd district and decided to post it myself.  The resistance  reminded me of the issues facing today’s journalism.  Democracy is indeed hard work, journalism has to explore nuances yet the Internet discourages discussions outside ideological confines or longer than four paragraphs  – and geographical terrain tends to dominate, so if you don’t have a lot of eyeballs in Franklin and Greendale, why run such a story?  The citizens of Milwaukee County are suffering from a narrowing rather than expanding exchange of research and analysis in the local mass media.


How curious that folks in other states picked up on the lesson faster. But they know. The shrunk turnout in local elections at odd times of year has crippled the general future of our democracy and republic and cost many communities forward-looking efforts to deepen community growth.  So this is no longer an issue of narrow geography or  Twitter one-liners but broad social and government policy.  How we get more people to vote is vital. Even in one lousy Milwaukee assembly race.