It was on May 22, 1856 — 161 years ago tomorrow — that South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks burst onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and launched a brutal attack on U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, nearly killing the senator with his walking stick. A couple of days earlier, Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, had delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech, denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, demanding Kansas be admitted as a free state and excoriating “Slave Power,” prominently mentioning a relate of Brooks’.
The incident and how it was perceived differently in free and slave states came to symbolize the breakdown of rational discourse in American politics in the years immediately before the Civil War broke out.
If you know your American history, you’ll know that politics has always been a blood sport in the United States. When issues of great import are on the national or state agendas, we also shouldn’t be surprised if people on opposite sides argue their positions with a passion equal to the importance of the topic.
But there’s a difference, we’d argue, between passionate argument over momentous issues and bitter partisanship simply for the sake of fighting.
In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the latter on the rise, first in Congress in Washington and then in the General Assembly in Richmond. Fighting for the sake of fighting, often over trivial matters or who is ideologically more pure. It’s a trend we despise.
We fear it is making its way into politics at the local level in the commonwealth.
In Virginia, the top governing body at the level of local municipalities is either a county board of supervisors or a city council. The state constitution also establishes five other local elected positions known as “constitutional officers”: commissioner of the revenue (who maintains local tax rolls and assesses taxes), treasurer (who collects taxes and oversees certain investment duties), clerk of the circuit court, sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney.
Essentially, these positions are senior-level civil service jobs that happen to be subject to election. But therein lays the problem.
In much of Virginia, the men and women who have run for these offices have done so as independents. Sometimes they’ve sought the endorsement of a local party unit; more often than not, though, they’ve run and served as independents. That’s also been the case with members of boards of supervisors and city councils — the job requires you to represent all residents, with neither favor nor prejudice toward anyone.
We could understand if local parties decided to nominate and run candidates for supervisor or council positions, clearly under the Republican or Democratic flag. A county board or a city council is, in a sense, a local legislative body, much like Congress or the General Assembly. It’s not an arrangement we would like, but it is a logical extension from the federal to local level.
It’s the politicization of the constitutional officer positions — remember, they’re essentially senior-level civil servants who are elected — that troubles us.
Is maintenance of the tax rolls, issuance of local professional and business licenses and levying of taxes a position that requires experience and knowledge or simply a “D” or an “R” after a name on a ballot? How about a job whose primary duty is seeking justice for crime victims? Or to “serve and protect” a community?
Many of Virginia’s local school boards are elected today. But state code is explicit that candidates must run as independents, with no party affiliation whatsoever in an effort to keep the operation of public schools as free as possible from partisan party politics.
If we must elect our local, senior-level civil servants in Virginia, this is a requirement we wish were in place. Partisan party politics should have no place at the local level; we do not need races for local office turned into extensions of national political battles. Those who would do so, do no good for their communities.