It’s been a fascinating year in the long canon of local politics.
Spurred largely by the shock of someone as coarse and unrefined as Donald Trump becoming president, numerous members of the community with so many varied stakes in its success – from nonprofit leaders to community activists – have suddenly rediscovered the principle of civic engagement, running for office at both the city and county level in unprecedented numbers.
This is an ideal tenet of a democracy – to get involved at its highest level – and for the everyman to make the transition from a role as civilian to public servant. This is stepping up as a representative of a constituency in its most intimate sense, choosing to open one’s self up to their neighbors to hear their chief concerns, letting the people who live next door; the street over; the other side of the ward, decide who among them is most suited to speak to the attitudes of their neighborhood.
But within those neighborhoods are also ward committees with limited memberships, each aligned with a specific political party that may not apply to all in the neighborhood. These are the groups, regardless of how small or tightly-knit the neighborhood may be, that offers the most cherished opinion of anyone’s in local politics: the gift of a committee endorsement, an established party infrastructure and several hundred dollars in extra campaign funding.
We argue that it’s time to do away with this practice.
Our first argument is the practice immediately prevents a barrier to access: While some may not be discouraged to run by failing to get their endorsement, it immediately presents a blow to the losing seeker’s credibility as a candidate, labeling them as “not good enough” in the eye of the established party. This is important, especially given the dynamics of voters in Tompkins County. Though roughly half of the voters in Tompkins County are Democrats, an additional quarter are unaffiliated. And though registration among Democrats has been growing (as well as the population of Tompkins County) since 1998, a new trend presents trouble ahead for the longevity of those numbers: among millennials (those born 1980 and later), voters with an independent affiliation have risen 8 percent nationwide between 2008 and 2016 according to the Pew Research Center. The same research also indicates their tendency to lean left has risen four points in that same time, to a 57 percent mark among the 18-35 year old demographic.
This hints that party affiliation, particularly among a growingly progressive electorate, may no longer be a priority for many voters, especially those who are beginning to mature as a more influential demographic in the city. Given that, according to Cornell’s Program on Applied Demographics, the county’s four largest age groups by population are between the ages of 14 and 29, this contingency is only maturing into the stage where civic engagement is highest:.
But it’s not just demographics that show the potential for a deemphasis on party politics is coming: in a liberal-leaning community that wholly endorsed the Bernie Sanders movement of 2016 (Sanders won 62 percent of Tompkins County’s vote against Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary), it’s clear the county as a whole, across all platforms, is willing to back a candidate whose substance defies party and who presents progressive ideas outside of traditional party frameworks. They’ve proven they’re a constituency willing to take chances.
But party values loyalty, and endorsements based on history and loyalty present bad optics. One case study can be found in the race for a Common Council seat in the city’s Fifth Ward. While there is no doubt Laura Lewis – the ward’s longtime committee chair – has innumerable amounts of experience in local politics and would make a fine candidate for the city’s Common Council, an endorsement in this case, with numerous first time candidates, does little more than leverage fundraising from a monocultural political party to discourage others from running or continuing their campaigns. Aryeal Jackson,a political newcomer, has proven herself an active and passionate individual who has long been a fixture in the city’s meeting rooms and Melissa Hall, also new to politics, offers the perspective of an average citizen that, for years, has been reluctant to make the jump to local politics. Keep in mind: a contribution of several hundred dollars from a committee, however small, can buy a lot of yard signs. That means a lot against someone from the neighborhood just trying to take their shot at making a difference.
Party endorsements, with this in mind, are not to be dismissed as a cutesie aspect of our political culture, some form of affirmation from a club where you either belong or you don’t. In a progressive town so clearly split in its definition of progressive politics, particularly in the Democratic party, this presents nothing more than an exclusionary practice in contradiction with the values of the local community. Ithaca is proving it is becoming one that doesn’t give weight to party values or traditional red and blue identities, that it’s becoming tired of the norm and wants to get engaged for the better.
Maybe it’s time to rest the machine a little while and give organic democracy a chance.