By Tim Whyte
As the fur and dust settle after Tuesday’s election, I look back on the past few months and can’t help feeling like something was missing: the City Council election.
Sure. The election occurred, alright. But it didn’t dominate the local conversation like it did in the good ol’ days.
The ingredients were there. Fifteen candidates, three seats. A solid mix of aspirational newcomers, old guard and predictable also-rans who, let’s be honest, never stand much of a chance of sweeping any voter category beyond their friends and immediate family.
The results were kind of what you’d expect, too. The incumbents won — Laurene Weste, Marsha McLean and Bill Miranda. Diane Trautman, an experienced former city planning commissioner, came in fourth.
Anyone handicapping the election would say, sure, that top four shows everything sort of going according to form based on past voter behavior.
So, after the top three and Trautman, who would you think would be next? TimBen Boydston, a former council member seeking to return?
Good guess, but no.
Jason Gibbs, the newcomer who had won the support of Councilman Bob Kellar and other movers and shakers?
Another swing and a miss!
How about Trautman’s de facto Democrat “running mates,” Brett Haddock (aka the guy with the bowtie) and Logan Smith? Strike three!
Nope. Sitting pretty in fifth was none other than my favorite “perennial candidate,” Ken Dean, with 9,749 votes, pending late mail-ins and provisionals.
Sure, with 3,856 votes between him and third place, Ken wasn’t much of a threat to win a seat. And yes, a few folks pointed out that his name appeared first on the ballot. But the winners all came from much farther down the list. The man barely campaigned. Didn’t raise any money to speak of — and the top candidates raised more than $50,000.
Talk about grass roots.
In 2016, the first year in which the council election switched from a stand-alone election in April to run concurrent with the general election, Ken drew 10,101 votes and placed fifth in a campaign for two seats.
That was by far his best showing until this year. He ran five times under the “old” format and was usually not in contention for the win. In 2006, he got 714 votes. In 1994, he got 332 votes. In 1992, he got 1,318. In 1990, his previous best showing, he got 3,015 votes and came in fourth in the battle for three seats. In 1987, the original cityhood election, on a ballot jammed with more than two dozen candidates seeking five seats, Ken got 1,214 votes.
My point? Under the new format, seven-time candidate Ken Dean is a rising star in local politics! With a little fundraising and some campaigning (I mean, literally, ANY), could we push Ken over the top in 2020?
Anyhoo. That excitement aside, I came to conclude in this election cycle that I kind of miss having the City Council election stand on its own.
Why? Because the council election was about the third or fourth most interesting local race. One could argue it’s actually the most important local campaign, based on the impact the City Council has on our town.
But it just didn’t capture the imagination of the public. What were people talking about the past few weeks?
No. 1 was clear: the 25th Congressional District race between Katie Hill and Steve Knight. Whichever side you were on, it was INTERESTING, and there’s no denying it was the headline act. The undercard? Probably the battle between Dante Acosta and Christy Smith for the 38th Assembly District.
Those, plus the other races and initiatives, left the City Council election in the role of warm-up act.
That’s what I liked about the stand-alone elections: Every two years, the community engaged in a robust discussion of who should run our town. The results might not have been any different — and yes, more people vote in a general election — but when it was a stand-alone, there was more conversation and the council election was THE thing local wags talked about.
I know there were good reasons to move it from a stand-alone to coincide with the general election. The city was basically compelled to make the switch in 2016 when it settled a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. By piggybacking on the general election, the city involves thousands more voters. It of course saves a few bucks, too.
Further, as we’ve editorialized, it’s time to revisit the way our council members are elected. With 15 candidates in a rodeo over three seats, it’s nearly impossible for even a conscientious voter to know them all. I’d expect some kind of a change in the future, perhaps involving a switch to elections by district, or some other mechanism.
Meanwhile, so long as council elections run concurrent with general elections, we’re going to have council elections playing third fiddle to other campaigns.
That is, unless we get some real energy behind Ken Dean in 2020.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.