Monday, July 4, 2016

An Urbanist Learns about Electoral Politics, Part 1

Like many California cities, at least those near the coast, there isn’t much of a political right-wing in the town where I live.  I see few bumper stickers for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Instead, we mostly fall into various shades of Democrats and Independents.  But the clustering doesn’t mean that we all agree.  In particular, there is a long-lasting schism on our city council, a schism that has lately been consuming much of my attention.

It’s not easy to give labels to the two sides of the divide.  Because local issues often don’t map well with national issues, the national labels don’t apply.  But I need names to tell my story, so I’ll give it a try.

On one side are those who seem to believe that things are going moderately well.  They would agree that there are worrisome concerns, such as traffic congestion and the depleted state of the municipal treasury, but their general sense seems to be that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, just a bit smarter, we’ll be alright.

In many situations, I would call these folks conservatives, but they could justifiably consider that term a pejorative because of the conservative dysfunction at the national level.  Besides, they may all be registered Democrats.  So I’ll call them centrists.

On the other side are those who seem to believe that there are systemic issues that need redress, whether social equity, gay rights, gun control, or something else.  Although a local newspaper columnist can’t refer to these folks except with dismissive quotation marks as “progressives”, they generally accept the word as accurate and reasonable, so I’ll call them progressives, without the quotation marks.

There are no bad folks among the councilmembers.  When I bump into any of them, centrist or progressive, I readily greet them by first name and, if the occasion is right, engage them in casual conversation about the affairs of the day, including the Giants’ bullpen and the prospects for the coming season of college basketball.

But I’m not in full political agreement with either side of the schism.  As an urbanist, I believe that walkable urbanism, although not a panacea, can help with many of the problems that now plague American cities, from climate change to affordable housing to income inequality.  But I find that neither the centrists nor the progressives, for reasons I’ll explore in my next post, adequately embrace the walkable urbanist agenda.

To the credit of the council, the boundary between the two factions can be fluid.  Enough councilmembers are flexible in how they view the issues of the day that voting patterns aren’t always predictable.  Plus, there are many issues that elicit unanimity.  But on the issues that are most divisive, which are usually the ones that matter most to me, the centrist faction generally holds the majority.  And that’s bothersome to me because I find the progressives are usually closer to walkable urbanism.

However, there may soon be a chance to tweak the balance of power.

We’ll have local elections this November.  By good fortune, all three council seats on the ballot are now held by centrists, creating an apparent opportunity to adjust the direction of the council.

The three incumbents have already announced their intention to stand for reelection.  But the progressives in the community have been silent.  So about six weeks ago, I reached out to one of the progressive councilmembers to ask about a progressive slate.  To my dismay, I learned that the handful of potential progressive candidates were all leaning against making runs.

Bothered by the potential void, I chatted with a few acquaintances and eventually invited a handful of folks to join me over a Saturday afternoon beverage to discuss the candidate situation.  The meeting clicked, participation grew geometrically, and there are now fifteen of us meeting weekly.   We’re honing a platform and encouraging potential candidates to consider a run.

We don’t yet have a candidate, but are hopefully getting closer.

Meanwhile, we’re learning lessons about electoral politics.  I already had an inkling on some of them, although this experience has caused my thinking to crystallize.  Other lessons are new.

There are three lessons in particular that I want to share.  But I’ve already taken enough of your time for one day.  When I next write, I’ll invite you to walk along with me in my journey of electoral discovery.

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


  1. I'd work for a progressive candidate. Keep me posted.

    1. Weed, I hope your enthusiasm extends to a progressive urbanist. If so, please stay tuned. Or email me directly.