Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to Think About the Upcoming Election

Upcoming election?  You better believe it, the City of Minneapolis will be having it's municipal elections for Mayor, City Council and Park Board in less that one year.  In fact, DFL Caucuses in the endorsing process will be happening on April 16th and I know of four confirmed candidates in my ward alone.  Even beyond the boring old realm of Minneapolis politics things are already underway as Political Scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out earlier with his helpful points on how to think about 2016.  So if you live in Minneapolis here are some help points to think about when thinking about 2013, if you don't these principles will still help you think about who to support when in comes to primaries for the 2014 cycle and beyond.

1. The Ethic of Responsibility.
I've written before about how I think one of the things that goes wrong with progressive politics in Minneapolis is a refusal to adopt an ethic of responsibility in politics. And I think this is very important to remember when looking at who wants to be your next member of the City Council or Mayor.  Effective political leaders need to be responsible not just strive to be on "the right side" of an issue in some maximum way as their choices will have consequences that can be bad, even if their intentions were good.  Under Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton the City's bond rating was downgraded by one of the rating agencies in response to, among other things, a deficit in an internal city fund.  When running against her in 2001 R.T. Rybak pointed this out as a big problem for the City (as it increased borrowing costs for all of the City's debt) and evidence of financial mismanagement.  Belton defended herself by pointing out the arbitrary nature and unfairness of the downgrade.  The problem here is that while in some ways her defense was correct, it also was irrelevant.  Bond rating agencies have always been unfair to American cities.  The fact that this downgrade was done in a unfair manner doesn't make the consequences any less real.  Nor does it excuse the responsibility of the people who made the decisions that led to the downgrade.  Just as the fact that you wishing the way American society funds professional sports stadiums in the beginning of the 21st Century was different doesn't make the consequences of the Vikings leaving any less severe for the city, even if it's unfair.  Look for politicians who will be responsible, not ones that will try to be "right" in some maximum way. 

2. "Values" can be Vague.
It's common to ask politicians about "values" in an attempt to see the "real them."  Minneapolis ward conventions are no different with few questions about substantive policy and lots that are chalk full of vague terminology like "support" or "fair."  The result is that even any politician can get through the "candidate forum" of a convention by agreeing with broad (and popular) principles while taking few definitive stands on the issues they will actually be tackling.  The result is that there is little hard evidence to go on when trying to asses if a politician will support your priorities and the result can look a lot like this:
In 2009, Council Member [Meg] Tuthill claimed that she supported strong city services. She then voted against Mayor R.T. Rybak’s budget, claiming that the budget “didn’t cut enough.” She never specified what she would cut. I wonder if she would prefer more potholes or fewer firefighters? Or maybe longer waits for inspections or fewer cops on the street...

In 2009, Councilmember Tuthill promised to work to help the people in Ward 10 thrive and she assured voters that she would not be distracted by “personal vendettas and tangents.” Until recently, she has been pushing an ill-conceived ordinance that would limit one of the great business assets of our community: our restaurants’ outdoor patios.

In 2009, she promised to be an advocate for women and against the exploitation of women, earning the endorsement of the DFL Feminist caucus. Last year, Hustler opened a storefront on Hennepin Avenue and Councilmember Tuthill hid behind a misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution. Instead of actively working to stop this store from locating in our ward, she claimed that the "First Amendment protects this kind of store" and argued that there was “nothing” she could do about it....
That's from an op-ed by Matt Filner a Ward 10 resident who ran against Tuthill in 2009 that was recently published in the Southwest Journal.  Now I get that Matt is upset with many of the policy choices Tuthill has made in the last four years, but the problem here is that the statements that were made were so vague that the whole "broken promises" meme doesn't work very well.  Supporting "strong city services" doesn't necessarily translate into a yes vote on a particular budget or even mean no cuts.  A hypothetical candidate could say they "support strong city services" then agree with cuts and say "they were too strong, now they are just the right kind of strong" or "these cuts won't effect services we are just getting rid of waste" or even "we can do less with more."  You could disagree with this policy choice but this is an argument about what "strong" means, not about what services should be prioritized.  Likewise being an "advocate for women" doesn't necessarily translate into working to stop one store from opening on Hennepin Avenue.  I could name lots of people who might see themselves as an "advocate for women" but don't agree with the policy preferences of the DFL Feminist Caucus. 

Better questions could have included "Do you support using the zoning laws to stop entire classes of business from opening in the ward?  If so what types would you exclude?" or "What parts of the City's budget should be open to cuts and what parts shouldn't be?"  Look at Grover Norquists' pledge as a guide, it's very effective at forcing politicians into a corner.

3. Be Honest About Consequences
So much about Minneapolis progressive politics is about publicly expressing support for a concept and ignoring the ways that the policies you support impact this issue.  This is true for all politics to some degree, after all a lot of politics is about groups and identity.  However, in Minneapolis I feel like the disconnect between public expressions of support for an abstract concept and how we judge politicians based on how their policies impact that very same issue has gotten so big it it leads to perverse policy outcomes.  Take the issue of affordable housing, it seems to me that one of the main strategies of some Minneapolis progressives is to stand in the center of the public bull ring and shout about how they "support affordable housing" and this is what they are judged on regarding the issue of the availability of housing.  What isn't talked about is how their policies had made housing more or less available.  One of the big reasons we have rising rents (and less affordable housing) in Minneapolis is we have a rental vacancy rate below 2%, a historic low.  This causes landlords to raises prices as demand for housing is greater than supply.  You don't need a PHD in economics to know that building more housing units, that is creating a greater supply of housing, would lessen the rise in rents and might even reverse it, that is create more affordable housing.  But this isn't how we judge political actors in our city, we don't ask if they've made the process to build new housing easier or harder or if they allow the construction of multi-unit housing or only single family homes, instead we ask if they "support it."  And so a policy maker can make it hard to build apartments or new construction at all and still win credit for supporting affordable housing even though their policy has decreased availability and thus made all housing more expensive.

I think this needs to end.  We should hold elected officials and candidates responsible for what they do, not just what they say they "support."  If you support restricting new construction you support less affordable housing, a smaller tax base for our schools and city services and higher property taxes.  If you support allowing apartment buildings to be built in places like Ward 10 not just single family homes you are supporting more affordable housing, a bigger tax base for schools and city services and lower property taxes.  Just as when Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio say: "a greater emphasis should be placed on improving the lives of the middle class if Republicans hoped to expand their appeal and confront the nation’s changing demographics"  while failing to mention a new policy we should acknowledge that's not their agenda at all.

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