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WISEMAN: Partisanship in municipal elections

The 2013 round of municipal elections is behind us and they provided some very interesting scenarios to be considered in greater detail. If there was a story of statewide interest in the elections it would have to be the vigorous and highly orchestrated effort of the Mississippi Republican Party to weigh in on some carefully targeted municipal campaigns.

In the interest of full disclosure, it is appropriate to point out that although I am considered an expert on politics, I am also the father of the mayor of Starkville, Miss.

For “pointy headed academics” in the field of political science one of the scarce components of scientific research is that of highly structured field experiments similar to those that take place in the laboratories of the “hard sciences.” It can be said that in the recent municipal elections that the Republican Party came as close as one can get to providing just such an experimental opportunity.

ballotboxIn an effort to broaden and strengthen party support at the “grassroots,” Republican Party leadership selected four cities to mount an all-out effort to elect Republican mayors in those cities. The four cities chosen were Ocean Springs, Meridian, Starkville and Tupelo. The Republican project was not a secret; the party widely publicized the effort from the outset. During the respective campaigns the Republicans held fundraisers, put out the call for volunteers from all over the state to come to Jackson and join phone banks, created and sent direct mail pieces, and perhaps most significantly of all, dispatched the governor, lieutenant governor, and members of Congress to the four targeted cities to join in the campaigns.

There is much to be gleaned from this experiment in bringing partisan politics to the municipal level. Before speculating on some of the potential lessons learned from this effort it should be noted that the Democratic Party candidate won in each of the targeted cities. A number of curiosities can be associated with these outcomes.

First, the question arises as to whether it was indeed advisable for the Republicans to attempt such a highly publicized effort at bringing the partisan divide into prominence at the level of municipalities. From the perspective of party-building, the Republican efforts were entirely legitimate. While the Republican Party has done quite well in capturing the legislative branch and statewide elected offices, Democratic Party viability still exists at the county and municipal level. Thus, it is only logical that Republican Party chairman and crew target municipal elections as the next battleground for party politics in Mississippi.

A second lesson learned has to do with the perceived place for hyper-partisan politics in the fabric of municipal elections. These elections are fought, sometimes fiercely, over the array, quality and cost of services that contribute to or detract from the quality of life in a community. Water, sewers, police, fire, streets, and recreation among many others are not issues readily able to be affected by Republican or Democratic solutions. Indeed, in every city these and related issues manifest themselves in vastly different and unique ways, and thus are not subject to “patent medicine” policy positions of the respective political parties.

A third lesson expressed quite frequently was one of resentment of outside efforts to influence local government. Municipal government and the requisite elections take place among friends and neighbors who often share the same church pew. Republicans and Democrats alike have been heard to object to intrusion of outsiders into elections that would decide the direction taken by a municipality for four years after the party operatives left town.

A fourth, and perhaps unexpected and certainly unintended, consequence of the Republican plan was an answer to a “call to arms” by a heretofore somewhat anemic Democratic Party. Democrats in the four targeted cities became organized and hit the streets and telephones in numbers that have not been seen in many years. The oft-spoken sentiment among Democrats is that there may be some significant grassroots Democratic support in this state after all. At the state level both the Democratic Party and the Democratic Trust contributed significantly to the publicity and fundraising efforts in the targeted cities.

In the end it is hard to see that the efforts to introduce an increased level of partisan politics at the municipal level took hold. In Tupelo where 37-year old Democrat Jason Shelton became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the office of mayor a number of notable Republicans prominently crossed party lines to vote for Shelton. By contrast, in Starkville three African-American Democratic elected officials actively campaigned for the Republican mayoral candidate and participated in a Republican fundraiser featuring Gov. Phil Bryant. Indeed, it would come as little surprise if one or all three of these officials announced their decisions to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the next few weeks.

In summary, the efforts of the Republican Party to bifurcate local issues by party, while logical as a party building strategy, nevertheless demonstrated that municipalities are perhaps not quite ready for partisan politics to steer the course of municipal services. The next round of municipal elections will tell us a great deal as to whether the Republican and Democratic Party hierarchies are indeed fixtures in grassroots municipal elections.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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