The case for contested elections

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 14, 2008

A veteran politician once told me, on the eve of a qualifying deadline, that he knew of only two ways to run for office: unopposed or scared.

As municipal elections approach, I hope our incumbents run scared this year.

A couple of clarifications:

– I have nothing against incumbents generally. To the contrary, I oppose term limits because I like the right to keep re-electing an incumbent who’s doing a good job.

– I have no personal issues with our Franklin City Council incumbents who are seeking re-election. Jim Councill and Charles Wrenn are fellow Rotarians and men of competence and integrity. I admire Raystine Johnson as a community leader and successful businesswoman.

Cynics might suggest an ulterior motive to this publisher’s desire for contested local political races. It’s true that an election year is good for the newspaper’s coffers. As the information medium of choice in the community, we sell lots of advertising space to candidates in hotly contested races. Even in a good election year, though, political advertising is a tiny percentage of our total revenue. It doesn’t make or break us.

Rather, my hope for a full slate of contested municipal races is rooted in my firm belief that a democracy thrives only when voters have choices.

The abundance of uncontested political races — from the federal level on down — is disturbing.

In last fall’s legislative elections, an astounding 65 of the General Assembly’s 100 House seats were won without opposition. Just 17 of 40 Senate races had more than one candidate. Three area legislative incumbents — Delegates William Barlow, D-Smithfield, and Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth — were among those who returned to Richmond without having to break a sweat.

In Congress, most U.S. Senate races draw at least two serious candidates, but for incumbents in the House of Representatives, more than token opposition is rare.

Two factors are to blame.

At the congressional and General Assembly levels, gerrymandered districts are drawn by incumbents to protect incumbents — especially incumbents of the party in power.

Barlow, to his credit, introduces a bill every year in the General Assembly to put redistricting in the hands of a bipartisan commission, which, at least in theory, would be more objective and draw districts that make sense geographically. Not surprisingly, Barlow’s bill never gets out of committee.

At the local level, the problem is less gerrymandering than apathy. Few people are willing to serve their community in positions that pay little and lack the prestige of higher-level offices.

Here in Franklin, however, I sense a resurgence of community pride and interest in local government as a new election cycle approaches. Several impressive people have told me they’re running for office, or at least seriously considering it.

I hear street talk of other prospective candidates.

The more, the merrier, I say. Our community will benefit from the vigorous debate and policy discussions that only a good election campaign can bring.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is