Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day is Here, Elections Can’t Be Far Behind

I’m not a proponent of voting by mail.  I think there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors while voting.  Just like I believe that there’s value in bumping into one’s neighbors at a grocery store or a pub in a walkable neighborhood.

Living in a precinct where walking to the polling place is reasonable for most voters, I expected for a long time to see neighbors there.

But I rarely did.  And after the last few elections where the poll watchers were almost pathetically happy to see me because it gave them a respite from staring at the ceiling, I’ve given up.  I’ll vote by mail for the foreseeable future.

However, there is a benefit from much of the population voting by mail.  The election season is shorter.  To reach many voters, arguments must be made and minds swayed before the early October date when voting begins.

And so, with the days of summer only beginning to fade, I’ll offer my thoughts on the upcoming election.  As always, I wouldn’t mention names.  But I’ll give the general rules that I’ll use in selecting the candidates to whom I’ll give my votes and my donations this time around.

My current election thinking began with an insight of several months ago.  I had a casual conversation with a North Bay politician.  To my surprise, he knew my blog and had read a number of posts.

From what I knew of his political beliefs, I expected him to align well with my thinking.  And he confirmed that expectation by saying he strongly agreed with one particular post.  And then he deflated me by continuing, “But the voters will never understand it, so I can’t say publicly that I agree with you.”

He then laid out his theory of how to govern from an urbanist perspective, which is to secure election, not by disowning core beliefs, but by underplaying them, by finding words and phrases to state urbanist feelings in ways that wouldn’t ruffle the voters needed for election.

Then, once in office, the urbanist office-holder should look for opportunities to slant policies a little bit toward urbanism, but without fully acknowledging urbanist beliefs because another election was always on the horizon.

I understood his point.  I remember the Nixon/Kissinger era of Realpolitik and how it seemed reasonably credible to many during the 1970s, especially compared to the Carter Administration’s fumbling attempts to bring morality into foreign policy.

But I was nonetheless distressed that, with climate change apparently well underway and with the spectre of bankruptcy knocking on the doors of many city halls, the theory of urbanism must still be hidden under a basket in order for candidates to achieve success at the ballot box.

(By the way, I’m not arguing that urbanism is fully proven, only that suburbanism is well disproved and should no longer be the standard by which we judge our candidates.  Although I believe that urbanism is on the right path, I suspect that it will continue to evolve for many years, which is a fine and healthy thing.)

With that preamble, here are my rules for backing candidates in the fall of 2014. 

First priority: Candidates who openly espouse urbanist principles and promise to base many of their actions on those principles.  I know that most candidates who are publicly urbanist won’t win election, so I’d likely be throwing my vote away.  But I’m willing to do so to honor the candidates’ integrity and to show that an urbanist candidate can secure votes.

Second priority: Candidates who concur with urbanism, but choose to keep those beliefs largely concealed.  Their strategy might be valid, but seems sadly timid.

Third priority: Candidates who haven’t yet grasped urbanism, but seem to possess the curiosity and acuity to yet take them there.  StrongTowns tells the story of bringing City Councilmembers in the Midwest to tears when they realize the fallacy of their blind pursuit of the failed suburban ideal.  I don’t want to make anyone cry, but I believe that conversions are possible and willing to risk a vote, in the absence of more worthy candidates, on someone who might be capable of conversion.

And if I can’t fill my ballot with these three priorities, then the remaining spots will remain vacant.

Of course, these standards aren’t absolute.  I won’t vote for a candidate, regardless of urbanist credentials, who I don’t find an honorable human being.  But otherwise I’ll use these rules at all levels of government, not just local, because the biggest stumbling blocks for urbanism are often in Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

Once again, I won’t mention the names of any candidates.  How to apply these priorities to your particular races is your homework assignment.  I hope you do well.  The future depends on it. 

Having started on a political path, I’ll remain here for my next couple of posts.  Next up, I’ll write about the municipal tax measures that are on many ballots this fall.  And then I’ll speculate on why it seems so hard to bring urbanism into open public discussion.

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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