Friday, August 31, 2012

Sorting Through the Candidates

Another election is upon us.  Much of my thinking about elections, and the candidates presented for our consideration, is based on thoughts that have roots in the distant past.  And those roots lead to my way of thinking about the urbanism of the candidates.

Many years ago, I took a ten-day trip with a good friend.  Ben and I were among the owners of a minor league baseball team.  We followed the club on its first roadtrip of the season, watching ballgames in Rohnert Park, Salinas, Long Beach, and Palm Springs before returning home to Central Oregon.

As is evident from the itinerary, we had lots of road time in Ben’s 1976 Lincoln Continental Mark IV.  (It wasn’t the most environmentally friendly roadtrip.)  We used the time to challenge each other’s beliefs on a wide range of topics.

Advanced baseball statistics, gun control, local politics, gay rights, drug policies, even linguistics.  All were discussed, with the verbal give-and-take further honing our philosophies.  On many subjects, we found our positions surprisingly similar, including our thoughts about vetting candidates for public office.

In retrospect, the election discussions were ironic.  At the time of the trip, I don’t think Ben had any thought of running for office.  But a year later, he was convinced to run for the Oregon legislature.  He won and went onto a long career in both the State Senate and State House before winning state-wide office.  I suspect that he had his eye on the governorship, but passed away before pursuing that dream.  He was a good and loyal friend who I miss greatly.  He would have enjoyed following this blog.

Our thoughts on voting for public officials came down to two points, (1) not relying on a single issue to select a candidate and (2) looking for candidates who share our values and thought processes, even if not our positions on every issue.

The latter point was particularly crucial.  We recognized that elected officials had access to more data, and more informed people, than we did.  And they had more opportunities to test their thinking in the crucible of the legislative process.  If an official, whose values we shared and whose thinking we admired, reached an unexpected conclusion, then it was likely that we would have reached the same conclusion if we had the same additional information.

With another election upon us, the memories of those long-ago conversations have been in my mind.  During every election season, I’m asked for my thoughts on the candidates, particularly for local office.  And I use the long-ago rules to help with my responses.

To begin, I won’t mention the names of any candidates.  Urbanism is a single issue.  The first rule from Ben and me precluded picking a candidate based on a single issue.   I ask that you consider urbanism when you mark your ballot.  And I suggest that you put it near the top of your criteria.  But I don’t propose that you make it your only standard.

There are many other non-urbanism issues that affect North Bay communities, such as municipal budget priorities, supplemental taxes, public employee pension reform, and even potholes.  The positions of the candidates on these issues should also matter.

Second, in a rule that Ben and I didn’t discover because we lacked the vocabulary, your consideration of the urbanism of a candidate should include “effective urbanism”, not “ivory-tower urbanism”.

The long-term goal of urbanism is marvelous, inhabited with people living happy, fulfilled, and sustainable lives, while completing many of their daily tasks without a car and engaging in regular face-to-face interaction with friends, neighbors, and a few strangers.  But it’s truly a long-range goal, one that many of us are unlikely to see in our lifetimes.  (There is a saying that one doesn’t truly understand life until planting a tree under which one will never find shade.  Urbanism advocates can relate.)

In the near-term, it can be easy to be distracted by the long-term vision and to miss the intermediate steps needed to build toward a better future.  Electing a candidate with that blind spot may be almost as harmful as electing one who doesn’t believe in urbanism.

And that blind spot is common, so common that many urbanist public officials are tagged as “no growth”.  It’s an untrue label.  Most urbanist public officials are eager for urbanist development.  But they’re so enamored of the long-term vision of urbanism that they can’t find a way to get behind incremental urbanist projects.  It’s a weakness.

In many elections, I find myself torn between candidates who seem able to get things done, but the wrong things, and candidates who share my urbanist bent, but are so distracted by the ultimate vision and near-term political considerations that they seem ineffective.  Finding an effective urbanist candidate can be a challenge.

Third and last, following the most important conclusion that Ben and I reached, if you trust the effective urbanist thinking of a candidate, don’t be concerned if he or she reaches a different conclusion on a particular urbanist subject than you do.  They may have more or better information than you do.  Besides, any particular urban project is only one small step on a long path.  If you share a good vision and a commitment to incremental steps, don’t worry about individual decisions.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the upcoming election, at least in writing.  But if you want to buy me a beer, we’ll see where the conversation goes.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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