Local Politics: a Cure for the Jaded

By Kellyn Brown

When Beacon writer Dan Testa and I sat down last week to start prepping for the peak election season, we began by making a list of every local race in our coverage area. It was daunting, more than three-dozen candidates deep, filled with men and women who sell shoes, manage restaurants and ranch as their primary occupations.

It’s a list of everymen and women with small budgets, familiar faces and little to look forward to in the way of compensation if they win. And a vote for them is far more important than that for president. They’re more pertinent than Barack Obama or John McCain, or even those running for U.S. Senate or U.S. House. And many voters haven’t heard of any of them yet.

I’m sure they will in the coming weeks, as the lawn signs return, as the candidates canvass local neighborhoods and as more attention is paid to local races. And this should bode well for our collective psyches, as the presidential race is beginning to adversely affect the moods of both my Republican and Democratic acquaintances.

What should be a debate about issues has instead morphed into an off-putting, albeit addicting, drama. It includes charges of sexism (and gender-baiting), racism (and race-baiting) and values (either family or elite). It features celebrities opining in cameo roles. And we, as voters, keep tuning in as each campaign sets the theme for the day that more often than not has nothing to do with governing. And if the candidate you support wins the day then, somehow, that day feels a little better.

The truth is a change in president will affect local voters less than a change in a state lawmaker, or councilor, or commissioner. Yes it’s important to vote for commander in chief – for those in uniform, even more rides on the result. But for the majority of us, the local candidates’ decisions will matter more, and some of that passion for the presidential race should instead be directed toward our field of small-town politicians.

In the Montana Legislature, Republicans hold an edge by just one seat in the House; in the Senate, Democrats have a two-seat advantage. How each race plays out will effect how education is funded, energy is developed and whether cities can implement a local-option sales tax. In other words those votes directly affect your kids, your jobs and your pocketbooks. The next Flathead County commissioner will wield exceptional power over which roads are paved and how your neighborhoods are zoned – in fact, the quality of life you prefer.

Moreover, these candidates with little money and fewer volunteers will speak to you (on your front porch, if you’d like) about actual issues. This may renew a little of your lost faith in democracy amid a political environment that is now hyperventilating over the presidential race. If Obama and McCain are polarizing, then these local races offer much-needed therapy.

Longtime Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once declared, “All politics is local.” The quote is famous, and often repeated, so I thought I would here. Because now, more than ever, reciting it can cure a bad case of political angst.

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