By. Neil Williamson, President
This morning’s (8/2) Daily Progress reported concerns by one Charlottesville City Council Candidate’s supporters with incumbent office holders endorsing primary candidates. Reporter Graham Moomaw has the story:
“There’s three people running for City Council that are running as a politburo,” [Former Mayor Blake] Caravati said. “… It’s a politburo of, ‘we’re going to get it. We’re going to run the city this way because we truly believe, we are true believers. We don’t believe in constructing consensus; we believe in doing it in what we think is the best way.’”
[Charlottesville Mayor Dave] Norris, a dam opponent, has endorsed [Dede] Smith, [Colette] Blount and [Brevy] Cannon, and he’s also working as Cannon’s campaign treasurer. Some have questioned whether Norris should be actively involved in council campaigns, and Caravati was critical of the mayor’s actions.
“It’s not appropriate. He’s the first that’s ever done it,” Caravati said.
Norris said Caravati’s politburo characterization was a “ridiculous metaphor” that shows a lack of familiarity with the three candidates in question, who Norris said are “intelligent, independent individuals.”
“The party establishment, the people who are going to fight to defend the status quo until their dying breath, are feeling threatened, because you have candidates who are not wedded to the status quo, who want to see some real change happen here in the city,” Norris said.
Norris also rejected the idea that sitting mayors should abstain from being active in other campaigns.
“There are three sitting councilors who have endorsed candidates in this race and I think it’s entirely appropriate for us as citizens to support other candidates for office,” Norris said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
The Free Enterprise Forum finds the question most interesting and asked each of our field officers to take a different position on the question of whether local government elected officials should endorse candidates. Please note these were assigned opinions and may not represent the actual opinions of our field representatives.
If after reading the opinions, you have an opinion to share, please continue the dialog on the blog.
The Free Enterprise Forum does not have a stated position and your knowledgeable input could help inform that decision.
Incumbent Endorsements Cloud Candidate Independence
Doing so lends the weight of their position in government – whether intentional or not – in support of the beneficiary of such an endorsement, as there is no way to perceptually separate the man (or woman) from the office for the purpose of validating the endorsed candidate’s qualifications, suitability of character or political compatibility.
When an incumbent endorses a candidate or candidates for the board or council on which he or she serves, the main concern is, what is the motivation or reasoning behind such an endorsement? Is the incumbent simply attempting to get “the best person for the job” elected?
Or is the incumbent’s purpose to put in place on the board/council others who would support his/her position on any given issue, or, even more disconcerting, does the incumbent have a specific issue in mind, the outcome of which he/she would like to sway in his/her favor? One’s motivation may be muddied here, depending on the issue at hand.
Although one could argue that at the county level elected members put in long hours for little pay and therefore must have the greater good in mind for their community, one can’t necessarily rely on that statement to be true 100% of the time. We all know of individuals who have come to the table with their own agenda, firm in their belief that it is for the best of all concerned, and as a result are unable to receive new information, hear plausible arguments, or engage in realistic compromise. In other words, they are not what you would call “open.”
Should such individuals be allowed to endorse candidates that they know will fully support their agenda, then we have lost one of the shining advantages of living in a democracy: the ability to receive and listen to opposing views and learn from those whose opinions cause the strongest reaction within us.
Each candidate should be assessed in the court of public opinion on their own merits untainted by a factional or partisan finger on the scales.
Winning an Election Does Not Mean Losing Right To Free Speech
By: Amelie Bailey, 2011 Field Officer Intern and William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer
While many citizens find incumbents endorsing candidates unsettling or unfair, an incumbent does not trade his/her first amendment rights for their seat on a governing board. Any attempt to suppress speech by politicians – although whimsically attractive – would be laughed out of court.
Politicians do not exist in a vacuum, People who seek public office generally do so because they think the can make a difference, and they usually try to make a difference through their unique perspectives. And it is in the nature of things that like-minded individuals would seek to support each other.
There is inherent value in knowing an incumbent’s preference of candidates at both primary and general election levels. Incumbents have a unique understanding of the requirements of the job, and knowing who they believe is most suited for the position can be a helpful insight for voters.
Just because Charlottesville mayor Davie Norris happens to like one or more candidates running for city council, why should he not inform the public of his predilections? Informed citizens presumably would find that information useful, one way or another.
Candidates endorsed by a sitting member of the board for which they are running have the advantage of free publicity and name recognition that other candidates do not have. However, endorsements made by an incumbent also provide information to citizens in the form of associations. Those who dislike the incumbent will likely draw a parallel between them and the candidates they endorse and thus be less likely to vote for such a candidate. Since there is no universally popular incumbent, associations with an incumbent will not help candidates across the board.
Any “voluntary” pledge to curb endorsements or any other form of speech would undermine the political process. Thoughtful voters rightfully should demand more information from candidates and incumbents, not less. The notion that somehow endorsements make candidates beholden to the endorser presupposes that endorsements require a form of quid pro quo.
And such an assumption would be very hard to validate. It is unreasonable to expect a politician to endorse candidates who are not of similar persuasion. While a Dave Norris endorsement of Rob Schilling might be possible, it is unlikely that we will witness such an astonishing event.
Incumbent endorsements of candidates are not at the expense of the democratic process of election. Although an incumbent provides publicity for their chosen candidate(s), any candidate can seek endorsements elsewhere, such as from politically active groups, media, etc. If a candidate is unable to do this, one would question their appeal to the general electorate and/or their commitment to getting elected.
We ask much of our politicians when they govern us, or try to. It is too much to ask them to put their minds in a blind trust when they assume that responsibility. It is also an insult to citizens to require that they be shielded from any influence outside of their own reasoning. One should trust that voters can filter information and make informed choices about candidates.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org