Friday, March 16, 2007

Opinon: Denver needs more spirited politics

Former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt penned a March 3 column for the Denver Post entitled "Election Below the Radar".

So much of the article is good, it's hard to know where to start. The column begins with a rundown of the current apathetic political situation:
So far, Denver's all-mail, May 1 municipal ballot looks like a nothing burger. With the exception of three open City Council seats in Districts 3, 7 and 8, there are no truly contested council races. There are no serious candidates challenging the mayor or the auditor. Nor does there appear to be a real horse race to fill the newly created, $125,000-per-year elected job of clerk and recorder.

Oh, sure, the perfunctory Harold Stassen candidates (the Minnesota Republican who sought the presidential nomination nine times between 1948 and 1992) have pulled petitions: Dwight Henson, Denver's "homeless mayor," may run for mayor; CPA Bill Wells is gathering signatures - again - to run for auditor; Ike Kelley Jr. and William Rutherford III want the District 4 seat; Mitchell Poindexter and R.J. Ours are running in District 5; and there's Waldo Benavides in District 9. Denver voters see these names regularly on the ballot.

In the at-large race, only Carol E. Campbell, a credible west Denver neighborhood activist, has pulled a petition. The at-large race has been a slam-dunk incumbent's dream for as long as anyone can remember because of two significant factors: money and geography. It's nearly impossible to build a political base by going door-to-door citywide. The other alternatives are a challenger with high citywide name recognition or a wealthy, self-funded candidate who would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy name recognition though direct mail, TV and radio.

In fact, Councilwoman at-large Carol Boigon did exactly that four years ago. She loaned her campaign nearly $190,000 for advertising in the 2003 election and placed first in a field of seven - with 22 percent of the votes cast. Doug Linkhart secured the other at-large position with 17 percent.

After discussing the now-discarded idea of splitting the at-large council elections into two separate seats, which would have ensured more direct accountability and head-to-head campaigns, she returns to the question of political candidacies in Denver.
In 1995, Denver voters extended municipal terms to 12 years and in 2003, 10 of 13 council seats, the mayor and the auditor were open. Despite record candidate interest and numerous hotly contested seats, less than 47 percent of Denverites voted in the May municipal election.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of a citywide election for 16 important positions and little controversy. Are we so absorbed in national and international affairs and the doings at the state legislature that we simply don't care about the direction of our city, its condition and its future?

Maybe I'm tone deaf, but the absence of a spirited civic dialogue that should accompany municipal elections is not music to my ears.

2 comments:

Ben said...

You may as well just have moms entire article. Also, she is/was opposed to the idea of splitting the at-large seats into a & b, which you seemed to have glossed over. . .

susan barnes-gelt | columnist
Election below the radar
By Susan Barnes-Gelt
Denver Post Columnist
Article Last Updated: 03/03/2007 10:01:45 AM MST

We won't know for certain until Wednesday, the last day candidates can file a petition to run for office. But so far, Denver's all-mail, May 1 municipal ballot looks like a nothing burger. With the exception of three open City Council seats in Districts 3, 7 and 8, there are no truly contested council races. There are no serious candidates challenging the mayor or the auditor. Nor does there appear to be a real horse race to fill the newly created, $125,000-per-year elected job of clerk and recorder.

Oh, sure, the perfunctory Harold Stassen candidates (the Minnesota Republican who sought the presidential nomination nine times between 1948 and 1992) have pulled petitions: Dwight Henson, Denver's "homeless mayor," may run for mayor; CPA Bill Wells is gathering signatures - again - to run for auditor; Ike Kelley Jr. and William Rutherford III want the District 4 seat; Mitchell Poindexter and R.J. Ours are running in District 5; and there's Waldo Benavides in District 9. Denver voters see these names regularly on the ballot.

In the at-large race, only Carole E. Campbell, a credible west Denver neighborhood activist, has pulled a petition. The at-large race has been a slam-dunk incumbent's dream for as long as anyone can remember because of two significant factors: money and geography. It's nearly impossible to build a political base by going door-to-door citywide. The other alternatives are a challenger with high citywide name recognition or a wealthy, self-funded candidate who would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy name recognition though direct mail, TV and radio.

In fact, Councilwoman at-large Carol Boigon did exactly that four years ago. She loaned her campaign nearly $190,000 for advertising in the 2003 election and placed first in a field of seven - with 22 percent of the votes cast. Doug Linkhart secured the other at-large position with 17 percent.

The at-large race brings up another issue the council may place on the May ballot. Linkhart proposes splitting the two at-large seats into Seat A and Seat B, potentially creating two at-large runoff elections.

He says he is supporting this idea because, "I'm scared to death an ex-police officer or a fringe anti-tax Doug Bruce candidate could run against me. After all, 25,000 votes could win an at- large seat. A fringe candidate, a one-issue candidate might win."

Former Councilwoman at- large Cathy Reynolds, who held a seat from 1975 to 2003, said the council considered this idea years ago, but rejected it for a number of reasons. Campaign costs would escalate. The practice could become divisive with district and at-large candidates forming slates, which would divide debates.

"Why mess with the charter if it's not broken?" she asks.

Indeed. Far from creating more accountability for at-large members, the A Seat-B Seat approach could result in narrowing the citywide perspective that's critical to the effectiveness of the at-large positions.

A solution in search of a problem? I think so. On the other hand, 12 virtually uncontested incumbents running for mayor, auditor and 10 of 13 City Council seats is baffling.

In 1995, Denver voters extended municipal terms to 12 years and in 2003, 10 of 13 council seats, the mayor and the auditor were open. Despite record candidate interest and numerous hotly contested seats, less than 47 percent of Denverites voted in the May municipal election.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of a citywide election for 16 important positions and little controversy. Are we so absorbed in national and international affairs and the doings at the state legislature that we simply don't care about the direction of our city, its condition and its future?

Maybe I'm tone deaf, but the absence of a spirited civic dialogue that should accompany municipal elections is not music to my ears.

Susan Barnes-Gelt (bs13@qwest.net) served eight years on the Denver City Council and was an aide to former Mayor Federico Peña. Her column appears on alternate Sundays.

Dave Burrell said...

The only reason I "glossed over" the issue of the At-Large council race is because it was a different issue than Denver's need for a more spirited politics.

Oh yes, and it's no longer relevant, since City Council has already decided against the proposal.

As for copying the entire article, that seems a pretty clear violation of copyright. Especially since it is online elsewhere, I'd be happy to include the relevant quotes and leave the full citation at the Denver Post. We want to keep your mom's employer happy, right?

In any event, welcome!