All politics is local, but local politics is plain personal.
Yesterday was the culmination of our city council election cycle in Saint Paul. The great mystery of Democracy worked its way across our city as people did their part to confound all the expert predictions. In the end, it wasn’t all that surprising, with slate of DFL candidates of various kinds elected in all 7 wards and 3 of the 4 open School Board slots (DFL is the Minnesota term for Democrats, the result of a merger between the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party some 60 years ago).
I had the pleasure of being on the radio (KFAI) beforehand, chatting as a talking head about what we should expect. A good panel had been assembled of wonks and pundits like myself, and I was proud to be part of it. But one aspect of it all ran very cold – everyone wanted to describe the issues the election would turn on. Issues? This is local politics, guys. Votes are won a handshake at a time. There’s no media coverage worth anything. You don’t connect with people on the teevee, you connect with them on their front porch.
That’s not to say that last night we didn’t witness some interesting issues play out, but they aren’t what you might expect. Wards 1 and 6 were largely about generational change, and they came down a split decision. Melvin Carter took the former, but Pakou Hang was unable to make the case that times had changed in the more conservative 6. The emergence of our Hmong community as a force is going to have to wait just a little bit longer before they match their success at electing State Senators and Reps on the City Council.
But what does that mean as an “issue”? It means that time passes quickly in some places, more slowly in others. I like to say that Ward 2 (my ward) tells you where Saint Paul is today, but Ward 1 tells you the future. That means that with my good friend Dave Thune being reelected in 2 we have a City that trusts the proven leadership for the tough times we have now, but will be looking for a major generational change in the next round. I’m good with that. It’s not so much an “issue” as a reading of the Tarot cards.
The best thing about elections, however, are the parties. Not because we get to drink on someone else’s dime, but because I see people who I’ve worked hard alongside over the last twenty years. Many of them I don’t see as much as I used to. It was fun to be on the radio, sending my voice out over the air, but these were the people I wanted to reach for the night. Talking into the big mic, I was struggling to make sense of what this was about. Among old friends, we had a lot to talk about.
Running a city is rarely about grand policy choices or any of that stuff. It’s about effective delivery of essential services. It’s about helping people that need just a little bit, something they figure they paid for in their property taxes. It’s about the stuff that civilization is made of, the bits and pieces of services and codes that make it possible for us to have good lives close together.
Local politics is about what counts. It’s about people. I love it!