Civics 103: The Elections You Skipped – Local Government

In Civics 100 and Civics 101 I covered the two “big governments” we live under.   We, and the media, pay a lot of attention to who is in Washington, and we generally know who is the governor of our state.  But there’s another layer of government below them, which impacts us every single day, and can be considered “where the rubber meets the road:”  The local governments.  It can be a village, town, city, county, or all of them, but those are the ones that handle the services we most take for granted.   They’re also the governments which are most ignored by many of the political activists.

While the specifics (and titles) vary widely, even within a state, in general they have a legislative body and an executive.  Why would I say they’re ignored?  Think about it for a moment.  I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you consider yourself “politically aware.”  So, what’s the name of the executive?  Who’s representing you on the legislative body?   Are there other elected positions, and who’s holding them?  If you had to stop and think, or make a quick run over to visit your local government’s web site, you wouldn’t be alone.  I’m more involved in local politics than in state or national (my blogging aside), so it’s something I get more exposure to.  Yes, I do know all those people, and yes, personally.  It’s a small town.

But think of all the things you use or deal with as you go about your daily life.  Water, sewer, street lights, stop lights, sidewalks, and your streets.  Parks, recreation programs, summer job programs for youths, garbage pickup, fire and police departments.   Get a parking ticket, or see a reduced speed limit sign?  Local laws, and you may well have to deal with a local court.    You take them for granted, but those are all functions of the local government.  Unsatisfied with something where you live?  Think some local ordnance is ridiculous, or one is needed?  Well, the people holding those local offices are who you have to work with – or replace.

This is where the real “grassroots action” takes place.  It’s not glamorous by any means.  It’s long hours, boring meetings, and often unappreciated.  No, you don’t get to implement the big progressive ideal programs that you’re pushing for on the national or state level, but it’s still necessary.   Often no one cares if the person is a “real progressive” or a “real conservative,” as long as they’re doing their job right.  For example, in a town near me, the town supervisor looks like an aging hippie.  Long hair, beard, often in sneakers.  Yes, he’s also a liberal Democrat.  So the town is a Democratic hotbed?  No, it’s actually predominantly Republican.  But, he was well-known in the community, got elected to replace the retiring supervisor, and he’s been reelected several times since then.   They think he’s done a good job, so the voters don’t see any need to change things.  Most people don’t care about the road supervisor’s politics, as long as the streets are maintained, the street lights work, and they’re not going overboard with demands.   So if some things “don’t matter” in terms of political party affiliation, why pay attention?  It’s all the other things, which make up quality of life and how things are run.  I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past few years about “walkable communities,” wanting bike lanes, affordable housing,and so on.  Great ideas, sure.  But the national and state government really don’t make that happen.  It’s up to the local governments.  Yes, the larger governments can help with funding, but all the rest of it is the job of the locals.

Failure to realize the importance of local governments is why everyone gets surprised when something goes wrong.  When the local government doesn’t perform competently.  We’ve all seen the reports out of Flint, Michigan, and Ohio.  Lead in the water systems, which are a function of local governments.  Yes, I know about the situation in Flint, but the Emergency Manager making those local decisions was responsible.    We’ve been treated to a litany of problems with police departments, particularly relating to policing in predominantly black areas, to the point where the federal government has to step in to try to fix it.  But the problems started with the local governmentI pointed that out some time ago, that it’s the local governments who decide how their police departments will be funded and operate.  They’re the ones who negotiate the union contracts, determine hiring criteria, and set policies.  All those problems didn’t “just happen,” they were the result of long-standing neglect by and of local governments.

It’s also the area that I find the least interest by so many of the self-proclaimed “real progressives” on the internet.   They’re all concerned with “the big picture,” and yes, they’ll tell you all about it endlessly.  Ask them what they’re doing in their own locality, and you get a flood of verbiage about … the big picture.  Some national or state initiative they’re advocating which may or may not be favorable to the place they’re living, but remarkably avoiding the real answer: “Nothing.”

Why do I think that?  It shows up in their answers.  I keep getting responses like “The Party should” or “The Party must,” as if “The Party” was some monolithic, top down organization.  It’s not.  It all starts with the local party.  The DNC or the State doesn’t send down a list of “this is who you will run” to the local party.  Seriously, most of the local parties would be delighted if that happened, it’d save them a huge amount of work.  You see, they’re the ones out there trying to scrounge up candidates to run.  It often involves a lot of persuasion and sometimes arm twisting.  They’re also the ones who identify certain people to the state and national party as good candidates for various offices.  Even then, it’s up to the local parties to decide who they’re going to endorse.   The people they’re looking at?  Generally they’re looking at the people who hold offices in local governments.  Now, most of those people have no interest in running for higher offices, but there are some who do have an interest, or they can point to someone the party should be considering.

One of the sayings in the environmental movement is “Think globally, act locally.”  It also applies to government and political action.  You want good things to happen nationally, a lot of progressive action?  Start locally.  Make your community better, get your local government to work better, and if you want progressive candidates, you have to get out there on a local basis to recruit them.  It’s hard work, and maybe you won’t see a lot of “progress,” but everything helps.  At the very least, you’ll come away with an appreciation of what government and politics are all about.


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4 responses to “Civics 103: The Elections You Skipped – Local Government

  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Norbrook. Far too often, people ignore their local elections … and then complain that state or national leaders did (or didn’t) implement some change, when in truth that change did (or didn’t) happen because of decisions in local government.

    It’s important to know which is which….

  2. An example of this in my own city. In 2010 there was a candidate for mayor, a very nice-looking, middle-aged woman. I met her once when she was going door to door and stopped at my house. If I hadn’t paid attention to her mailers and done a little online research, I might have been taken in. Lots of others were and she ended up being mayor. She proceeded to embarrass us on the local, national, and even global stages by her homophobic comments and delusional ‘policy’ decisions and behavior. She was a Tea Party person who was too extreme (and also stupid) for even my generally Republican town. I remember going into a restaurant and hearing people talking about her; everyone in the city was talking about her and almost all were appalled at what she was doing. She was eventually recalls before she did serious damage to the city and embarrassed us even further. A little bit of interest, reading, research would have prevented the whole fiasco.

    • Most of us in our town have an idea of who is running, and who they are. One of the things NY allows is “cross endorsing,” which is if a party doesn’t have a candidate for a given office, they can endorse another party’s candidate, who will be on their line in addition to their main one. Several years ago, the then road supervisor was retiring, and he told everyone who he wanted to succeed him. He even promised the job to this guy, which since it’s an elected position, he shouldn’t have done. Another person in the area, well-qualified, challenged him in the Republican primary and beat the “annointed one.” Rather than take that lying down, the loser decided to run on a third party line. This angered the Republican chair, and to be honest, the guy wasn’t well-liked by a number of people. A few phone calls, and hey, what do you know, the Republican nominee has the Democratic Party line as well. He won, too.

  3. Reblogged this on New NY 23rd and commented:
    We all get excited about the National Election for president, where our vote is 1 out of 100 million. We should get more excited about local races, where our vote could be one out of 100 or less.