Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's Post #1: Defining mediocrity up and the 2014 elections in DC

These days, DC ought not to be such a bad place to be an elected official.  The population continues to grow, DC now has a population of 646,000 ("[National] Population gains at near-historic lows," Washington Post); crime isn't such a big problem; the real estate market is reasonably strong although not perfect because of a diminishing role in the federal government's place in the market; and the city is in a pretty good place financially, although most of its loan capacity has been encumbered--it helps that DC is the only city in the US that collects and keeps 100% of the "state" income tax.

That being said, DC is no city on a hill.  Plenty of politicians have been brought down by corruption over the past few years and DC doesn't really stand out as a special example for other cities to emulate, with an exception or two on particular programs (like bikeshare).

When everyone's party affiliation is Democrat, there is no platform or party discipline.  I read an article about Massachusetts after Scott Brown was elected to the Senate that made the point that because the state is dominated by Democrats, everyone who wants to win runs for elective office as a Democrat, but the reality is that the issue positions are all over the map and encompass for some people what would be Republican positions, although my lesson from the story is more about the dearth of a basic position or platform.

DC has the same problem.  It's a city-state even though it isn't recognized legally as a state.  For the most part, DC can do what it wants, with some limited oversight from and restrictions by the federal government, which waxes or wanes depending on which party is in office--generally the Republicans like to use DC for political points so that's why we have such a strong charter school movement here (put in place as a deal between the Newt Gingrich Congress and President Clinton), Sen. Shelby put a death penalty sentencing proposal on the local ballot, etc.

But at the local level, it means that because of the dominance of liberal sentiment, as expressed by affiliation with the Democratic Party, there is no "party discipline" and no real platform. 

Candidates for office running as Democrats are more about creating and maintaining personal fealty than they are developing an overall platform and a progressive agenda, as opposed to a putting together a variety of incremental positions.  Basically they produce a grab bag o' stuff as opposed to a platform.

Image from Unpunk.

So suffice it to say that I am bored by the 2014 election.  It could get shaken up some by a strong independent run for Mayor to challenge the Democratic winner from the way too early primary in April, but I am not holding my breath.

I have a couple of pieces from the last two years which are evergreen when it comes to the topic of improving DC governance and politics.

1.  "Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)," discusses a broad number of systemic changes that I propose to increase democracy and openness in local government.  As Matthew Frumin said in the special election campaign last year, the Home Rule Charter is going on 40 years old and it's time to review where we are and where we've been.

Summary recommendations

1.  Increase the number of wards.
2.  Increase the number of councilmembers
3.  Move the legislature to part-time service and reduced pay
4.  Reduce the size of councilmember staff
5.  Increase the research capacity of local government
6.  Institute term limits for elected officials.
7.  Change the date of the primary election to extend the electioneering period.
8.  Institute ranked choice voting for local elected officials.
9.  Institute additional campaign finance limits for local elections.
10. Create an elected public advocate/ombudsperson.
11. Reconstitute a school board with oversight over pre-K to 12 public education, traditional and charter schools.
12. Build civic capacity and infrastructure.

Since the City Council voted to move the popularly elected Attorney General election to 2018 ("D.C. Council votes to delay first election of an attorney general," Post), counter to what citizens voted for, we need to add this to the list as well.  There is a move to put it back on the 2014 ballot ("DC Council needs to get the DC attorney general election right," and "Delaying election of attorney general makes a mockery of democracy,"  Post--note that the Post editorial page has continually espoused the wrong position on this issue) although I would be content to put it on the 2016 ballot, which is what I had proposed years ago, that the AG be elected in the non-Mayoral election cycle.

Note that an alternative to ranked choice voting would be runoff elections and non-party segregated primaries.  The way it works in Seattle, local elections are non-partisan, and the top two vote getters for Council races continue on to the general election ballot. 

2.  Given the so-called rise of progressivism at the city level, given the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City and maybe even the election of Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative candidate, to the Seattle City Council ("Kshama Sawant's Brash Style Catapulted Her to Victory: Will It Also Be Her Demise?," Stranger), etc., I find the agenda-less local Democratic Party to be a big problem and a lost opportunity--in other words, if DC wants to become a legally recognized state, we should start acting like one, and function at a high level both in terms of governance and the general political structure.

This 2012 post, "Repositioning cities (at least on the coasts) for greater political prominence, and a city-first agenda," discusses local parties in Vancouver, BC and Montreal, and their respective platforms.  Similarly, in 2013, most candidates for Mayor and Borough Chair in New York City had defined platforms rather than a grab bag o' stuff that we content ourselves with in DC.

-- Bill de Blasio, campaign website issues section
-- Julie Menin, candidate for Manhattan Borough Chair 
-- Anthony Weiner, Mayoral candidate, "Keys to the City" plan (actual documents no longer online, but ideas, 121 in total, accessible through the webpage for specific issue areas)

The "defining mediocrity up" point has to do with how I think of DC, because it is the national capital, defines anything it does, regardless of true worthiness, as "world class."  It's a corollary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's writings about "defining deviance down."

Note that the Tommy Wells website is decent on issue positions.  Muriel Bowser's website is not.  Jack Evans doesn't list new issue positions, but lists his involvements and initiatives in terms of legislation and programs for 13 different issue areas.  The website for the Vince Gray re-election campaign has no content.

Interestingly in a first, at least that I can recall, there is an anti-Vincent Orange website, excoriating his positions and way of participating in politics.  He still doesn't seem to have a website up.

3.  I don't think having an agenda would be enough for a second party, either the Statehood-Green Party or the Republican Party, to break through and become a credible alternative, unless the legislature expanded, through a doubling of the representatives in each ward (one elected every two years for a four-year term), an increase in the number of wards, and limits on campaign spending.

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At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

San Francisco is basically a one party town. You could argue NYC is too; although, NYC and State have a whole slew of parties that may or may field candidates, I voted a Working Families Party ticket mostly but some of those candidates were on other slates. But that's sort of my point, in SF there were different voting blocs and slates and different community groups and Dem clubs were aligned with different types of candidates. It had the same effect as multiple parties (or in realty, no parties, or micro parties that were similar to what you'd have in Japan or Europe.)

Perhaps it's the small size of the DC city council. SF is only 200k people bigger. Or maybe there just needs to be some more savvy political players to get into it and shake things up? There isn't enough at stake and with a national political arena to attract away from or distract away the real politico types.

I wonder if that fed/local issue is always going to be the problem. All politics is local, but when the other local game in town is Federal can the local compete? This is a cynical view of politics maybe that believes only a certain kind of person is attracted to the game of politics. Maybe DC could the kind of community engagement when Congresspeople spent more time living and caring about the city (at least part time). Now when someone wants to get involved with local politics is a national player, they move back to where they came from.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Developing a platform is hard. Parties take a lot of effort to organize. It's not just association of city dwellers with the Democrats that causes the one-party nature of one-party cities, but a simple barrier to entry.

I'm also not sure what the problem is that needs to be solved. As you note, the one-party element is in name only. So why not move towards basic electoral reforms like two-stage non partisan elections or something like that?

I don't think you'll ever be able to overcome the pull of the national parties; I don't really see the point in trying.

I don't see how your reforms would help, either. In the US, we have a two-party system primarily because of winner-take-all single member districts. You expand that system with more seats, but don't fundamentally change it.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

If you enact campaign finance reform simultaneously, it becomes possible, not probable, for competition to occur, particularly at the ward level (you saw with the special elections in W4 and W7 after the 2010 election when the councilmembers moved up, how previously ward-specific offices were integrated into a citywide power structure, especially in terms of campaign finance).

With the structural set up now, everything promotes continued one party dominance.

The other structural reform proposals are about better governance, and would make things better regardless of what occurs party-wise. If you think that the way wards are basically caudillo set ups is a good thing, then we'll have to disagree.

I don't have a preference one way or the other about local politics being affiliated with national parties.

I think it is preferable to do it that way, because localities have to work with state and federal legislators for help and common labels helps. DC has a different relationship to the federal govt., and being out of the "system" in terms of how elected officials see their roles could be very confusing to them.

In DC, it doesn't matter much, but again, I have no problem with having national parties and locally affiliated parties and elections.

I do think though that the way parties work here (not in NY State as Christopher points out) is problematic though, because everyone limits their thinking about political competition to "the Republicans" e.g., the W. Post and all the hype about Patrick Mara. An oligopoly isn't much better than a monopoly.

What we need is competition and a base for innovation, and that we don't have that.

But it is interesting in Vancouver and Montreal how having different party forms aids innovation.

2. Christopher's points are very apt, about organized coalitions even within the one party state. That we don't have at all. The organization around elected officials is more personal, not shaped within a formal party framework. (e.g., when the dude ran for Statehood in the last election, I criticized him for using imagery and "brand" colors that weren't part of the alleged "statehood party" "brand".) Only the competition to the Democrats or people running as Independents list their party affiliation. Look at a Wells, Evans, or Bowser campaign sign. None say that they are Democrats.

I need to look up a book chapter, "Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in Confederate Defeat," which posits part of the problem for Davis and the ultimate success of the CSA was a lack of political parties and a way to express opposition or force political innovation when necessary.

In reading the discussion of this in _Why the South Lost_ after writing this piece, I was thinking that the discussion here would have been improved with insights based on that article.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Note too that arguably, part of the reason that local politics in Toronto is so f*ed up, especially now, is the lack of an organized party structure at the local level, although my understanding is that some of the parties do function as local parties, just not with the formal label.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Arlington provides an interesting contrast. Party is far stronger there than in DC. Although with the collaspe of the local republican party (bad national branding, demographics, state opportunities) you've got effective one party rule and the problems with that.

I'd say DC has what I'd call the "Weak theory" of partisan politics. We know what DC politics is: lots of city jobs, overly generous social support for poor, black nationalism. Most of this theory has been discredited since control board era but in order to win you've got to throw some of it around.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yep, Walmart especially is an example of the jobs trope.

cf. _Between Justice and Beauty_ by Gillette.

That's the argument he lays out. Govt. as social justice vs. DC as a nice place (city beautiful movement).

Obviously, Marion Barry knows how that rolls... it's also relevant to DC's mediocrity which is in part a function of the static nature, demographically, of the African-American population, not that it isn't reasonable to address the issues resulting from racism and long term poverty.

At 12:50 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

There was a good article in today's NYTimes about this in Hawaii -- progressives vs. Japanese americans.

Yes, as I said it is the weak theory. The fall of MB discredited most of that consensus, but nobody is really changing it, just tinkering with the edges. But you also don't have the situation in Arlington where if you question the party line you are driven out.

Which is why DA needs to run for mayor....

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't think he has a thick enough skin to be able to subject himself to that kind of campaigning.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... I don't see smart growthers doing door knocking/door to door in neighborhoods like the old H Street, like I used to do back in 2002-2003.

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