Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Politics is Local

[Elections 2007] All politics is local. That may have been true when Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill said it way back when, but increasingly it seems elections are decided far away by forces beyond the control of the neighborhood bar. Corporations fund campaigns of congressmen and state lawmakers who seldom bother to talk to constituents. Out-of-state single issue groups bankroll ballot issues to steamroll pet issues into law.

But not in Salt Lake City. Yesterday's election results proved winning an election here is still about local alliances, word-of-mouth and rallying the neighbors. Once Salt Lake City's political classes had decided Ralph Becker was their next mayor—something that happened fairly early in the primaries—the race was over. Voters solidified around him over coffee or cocktails, and all the ads in the world weren’t going to change the outcome.

Becker could have come out as the bastard child of Mr. Rogers and a muppet and still have won.

Unlike his competitors, Becker had a constituency—Salt Lake’s Avenues, which Becker has long represented in the state Legislature. And it’s a politically active bunch.

Contender Jenny Wilson (the stepdaughter of City Weekly editor Holly Mullen) also had a constituency, but unfortunately for her it wasn’t in the city. The Salt Lake County councilwoman knocked out during the primary had backers from all over, but no concentrated base that felt she was their gal. Keith Christensen, starting from scratch with no constituency at all, never had a chance. His huge spending in the primaries, to no effect, was the best demonstration that that Salt Lake City remains a small town where advertising can’t win an election.

Dave Buhler tried to appeal beyond his natural constancy, presenting himself as the Mormon–but-tolerant everyman’s candidate (One Buhler campaign mailing invited residents to “come have a drink with Dave after work. He’ll have a root beer, you have whatever you want.”). But his 36 percent showing in the general election appears to approximate the percentage of the city’s population of active LDS churchgoers.

Vouchers went down for the same reason. There is simply no significant group of Utah voters invested in private schools. Despite the claims of the Sutherland Institute, Mormons have no tradition of private schooling. Groups that do, like Catholics, make up a small part of the electorate.

Which made the Beehive State a particularly bad spot for voucher pushers to stage their first national fight. The result was a huge win for the teacher’s union, and a union organizing effort that should serve teachers and their allies well in future elections. (Ted McDonough)

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