Challenging Dems for City Council: a fool's errand?

Challenging Dems for City Council: a fool's errand?

It’s post-election November, and though three candidates are preparing to start new terms as city councilors this January, nothing has changed in the Council’s political makeup. All three of the election winners—incumbent mayor David Brown, Satyendra Huja and Holly Edwards—are Democrats.

Peter Kleeman and Barbara Haskins were the latest independents to take on the Democratic machine in the city.

Independent candidates Barbara Haskins and Peter Kleeman lost handily. Neither garnered more votes than the Democratic candidates in any city precinct. In a city that elects Democrats almost exclusively to Council—only one Republican, Rob Schilling, has been elected since the 1980s—is running as an independent a viable option or merely a fool’s errand?

"I don’t have any bad feeling about doing this," says Kleeman, who won 2,212 votes. Edwards, the lowest vote getter for the Democrats, won 3,711. Kleeman says that he and Haskins injected their ideas on issues that may have been given only cursory treatment without them, and that led to a broader discussion.

"I heard a lot more comments about regional transportation and supporting bicycles and better transit," he says. "I hear a lot more discussion about environmental issues than I recall hearing in the past, and part of the reason I think that happened is I was in the race, and I made those my issues.

"So my feeling is, a positive impact has been made, but there’s no way to measure it. It’s just that it was made more a part of the conversation."

Democratic candidates have a larger machine to plug in to for support, both strategic and financial. All three Democratic candidates received money from political action committees. They also campaigned as a single ticket. Brown, Huja and Edwards posed together for one photo for their collective poster.

Haskins, who ended Tuesday night with 2,111 votes, recalls getting e-mails from election officials addressed to herself, Kleeman, and the Democratic e-mail handler. "I was basically a campaign staff of one," she says.

Satyendra Huja, once planning director, will take a seat on City Council. He was the top vote getter in the city, with 3,797 votes.
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The results
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An independent candidate doesn’t have as many options or avenues of assistance. He is on his own for funds, for advice, for event planning—pretty much all the nuts and bolts of running a campaign. Kleeman admits that he was winging it for the most part, guessing about the best ways to get his message out.

"I bought 100 yard signs, and I discovered that really wasn’t enough," he says. "I needed more. I was going to need close to 100 signs just for election day when you figure there’s eight precincts, put eight to 10 of them out…and so on. You never know how much money you’re going to need because there’s no track record."

Haskins, who spent the summer studying city issues, says that she was surprised at the amount of campaigning that went on during election day, the signs at polling places, the sample ballots, the supporters greeting voters. "I thought, ‘How can campaigning on election day make any difference?’"

It does, as anyone who’s run a campaign, including Haskins now, knows. The sample ballots, the signs, the flyers, all the last-minute minutiae adds up. But it takes money to produce those, putting independent candidates  at a severe disadvantage.

While Democrats receive money from their party and PACs, the independent is left with the problem of how and where to find funds. All three Democratic candidates spent more than $5,500 each campaigning. Holly Edwards spent $17,663, the most of the three.

Kleeman, on the other hand, spent $1,763. Haskins dropped $1,285.

Schilling was somewhat of a dragon slayer in 2002, winning a Council seat as a Republican. He argues that the system fosters a one-party council, and notes that an independent hasn’t won since 1936. One way to fix this, he says, is for the city to adopt a ward system, which would break down the city into smaller neighborhoods. This is something he’s been advocating for years, with few results.

"The other thing that needs to happen here is nonpartisan elections," he says. "I think the School Board is an excellent model because you had a field that was essentially seven Democrats running, but they couldn’t say, ‘Here’s my team.’ What I would like to see is the conventions abolished, everybody get on the ballot by signature, and let’s have a battle of ideas."

Kleeman agrees that the system is set up to breed a binary choice for voters—status quo versus anti-status quo. This, of course, is nothing new in the country, let alone city. But because Democratic candidates can run as a team, as Schilling points out, the either/or nature of the election is intensified.

Holly Edwards, City Councilor elect, greets her adoring fans at the city Dems party.

Kleeman says that he tried to run on issues but found that it was hard for specific issues to gain tractions. Was a vote for him an acknowledgement of his ideas, or was it simply a vote against the Democratic machine?

"My feeling is that there’s a great deal of inertia in voters," he says. "They might not really be tuned into the idea that there’s an election and it’s important to them, and that it doesn’t take much time to actually discriminate among the candidates."

Haskins ran much of her campaign on a single, concrete issue—taxes. But she says that at candidate debates, she saw what she called "blue sky" politics: big ideas with little discussion of specifics.

"The typical Democrat is liberal and wants to think they’re doing good," she says. "But sometimes money isn’t the answer. The Democrats are making everybody feel good, but it doesn’t mean throwing money at [problems] is the way [they’re] going to change."

Unless you’re talking about elections. Issues are nice, but throwing money at problems like name recognition is a great way to solve them.

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