Turning potholes into hot-button issues

By Rob Christensen | Apr 10, 2017

During the middle of the last century, there was a reform effort in North Carolina to depoliticize municipal government, removing power from the old ward bosses and making city government more businesslike.

That is when most cities instituted the council-manager form of government in an effort to place the day-to-day running of City Hall in the hands of trained professionals. City elections were made nonpartisan, and elections were scheduled in odd-numbered years, separating them from the normal Democratic-Republican food fights.

It was a reform that has largely worked. North Carolina city governments are among the most efficient and the cleanest in the country. They run so well that we take them for granted.

There are rarely scandals. North Carolina probably has as many municipal governments with AAA bond ratings as any state in the country – the highest credit rating from the Wall Street bond houses.

Cities with AAA bond ratings include Cary, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill, according to the state treasurer’s office. There are no Tar Heel cities with bad credit ratings.

“There is no greater concentration of municipal fiscal health in the United States, and possibly in the world, than the string of cities down I-85,” David Rusk, an urban expert and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., told me several years ago.

In an era where national government is increasingly partisan and dysfunctional and state government seems heading down the same path (see voting rights, redistricting and more), municipal government still works.

But there is a move in the legislature to fix that.

The effort would inject more partisan politics into municipal elections. Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Harnett County Republican, has introduced a bill that would require municipal elections to be partisan.

“Because a candidate’s political beliefs/attitudes/values system tends to influence their political decisions, transparency into that belief system affords the voters an opportunity to elect people who will represent them and their interests,” Rabin said in a statement.

 

Under Rabin’s proposal, the parties would hold primaries to nominate candidates. Unaffiliated candidates would have to collect signatures representing 4 percent of the people they represent to get on the ballot.

 

There is also a bill introduced in the House by Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican, to move municipal elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years so that voters will elect mayors and councilmen at the same time they are electing presidents, governors and more. Since 1971, 99 percent of city and town elections have been held in odd-numbered years.

 

Most municipal elections are nonpartisan. The mayors and councilmen by and large don’t use their office as political stepping stones.

 

Raleigh’s Mayor Nancy McFarlane has been elected and re-elected as an unaffiliated voter.

 

North Carolina’s best known partisan elections are in Charlotte, the state’s largest city. A string of Charlotte mayors have tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to use the office as a stepping stone to run for statewide office. Those include Eddie Knox, who sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1984, Harvey Gantt, who was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and 1996; Sue Myrick, who sought the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1992; and Richard Vinroot, who was a GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1996 and 2000. The first Charlotte mayor to win higher office was Pat McCrory, who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for governor, was elected in 2012, but was defeated in 2016.

 

The partisan-nonpartisan divide can be seen in the HB2 controversy.

 

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat elected in a partisan election and responsive to liberal pressure groups, helped push through the transgender protections that prompted the legislature to pass HB2.

 

Raleigh’s McFarlane, an independent elected in a nonpartisan race, treads far more carefully in her dealings with the Republican legislature.

 

The biggest city political scandal of note in recent years involved former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, who was convicted on public corruption charges in 2014. Cannon, of course, was elected in a partisan election.

 

Of course, we know that even in nonpartisan elections, candidates run with the unofficial support of parties. But the partisanship is more muted. And the candidates don’t have to go through a primary – which tends to produce the most ideological candidate, not the common-sense moderate more likely to work across party lines.

 

If we move to partisan municipal elections, look for more politically ambitious, ideologically-edgy candidates pushing gay rights, gun rights and other hot-button issues as a means of moving up politically.

 

Is that an improvement on the good government that we already have?

 

Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at rchristensen@newsobserver.com.

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