We've heard in the past how the countless attack ads, billions in campaign spending and the endless cycle of recalls was going to cause voter fatigue and "disenfranchise" people from the political process. Those concerns have been met time and again by record or near-record turnout at the polls for those races. But it would appear that the current tone and procedure of politics is taking a toll on local government.
Just look at the races here in Oshkosh coming up this spring. Only two candidates are running for three open seats on the Common Council--and they are the incumbents. In a city of 60-thousand people, only two of the them are interested enough in how things are run to want to get involved. Mayor Burk Tower is running unopposed--as is Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris. I'm not saying that I want to see these guys ousted from office--but to not even have a discussion about their job performance, goals and beliefs is just disappointing.
There will be an election for the Oshkosh School Board this year--but only because "professional candidate" John Daggett turned in his papers. This must be an off year for Mr. Daggett. In the past, he has managed to get enough signatures to run for School Board, County Executive and Common Council all in the same election! He must be kicking himself this morning hearing that if he had only turned in enough petitions for the Council this year--he'd be on it--without even having to campaign! However, this My Two Cents would then be a desperate plea for anyone to mount an immediate (and likely successful) write-in candidacy to spare us from six hour Council meetings filled with miscellaneous ramblings and misguided questioning of city staff.
The candidate apathy doesn't affect just the spring races. Last fall, the vast majority of county government positions and supervisor races were uncontested as well--with at least one race not even having any candidates on the ballot.
While disgust for politics is running high right now, I think another factor in the disinterest in running for local office is the property tax controls placed on units of local government by the state. Outside of the 9% increase in the school tax rate in Oshkosh a couple of years ago (courtesy of Jim Doyle and the Democrats when they controlled the Legislature) we have seen relatively little to no growth in property tax levies. And the increases we are going to see the next few years are all due to voter-approved referenda. There are really only two things that get people fired up about local politics: big tax increases or approval of some type of industrial complex somewhere close to their house. And we haven't had either of those scenarios around here lately.
In previous My Two Cents, I've challenged fiscal and social conservatives to follow the path liberals have taken in building their current national base--by running for local offices and affecting change at that level first--then moving on to state and eventually national races. By the looks of what we will have for local candidates this time around, it appears that challenge is going unmet again.
On the bright side, the lack of interest in running for local government will mean two less nights of sitting here in the Newsroom until almost midnight Election Night waiting for those last eight precincts from Oshkosh to finally report.