It’s no secret Keene leans far more Democratic than Republican. We’d guess in recent decades more Democrats than Republicans have run for, and been elected to, the City Council and mayoral seats. But that’s not been a consequence of voters making choices based on party.
One of the most refreshing aspects of city elections in Keene is that the candidates are chosen based on how well voters feel they’ll manage the affairs of the city. Maybe some are chosen — or rejected — based on personality or because they’re well-known locally. They’re not typically picked because of their political leanings. It just doesn’t come up much.
This year, however, party affiliation threatens to be an issue. Two well-qualified city councilors have announced campaigns for mayor, and both are already receiving help from their respective state and local party organizations. The state Democratic Party has stepped in to assist Mitch Greenwald, while Cheshire County Republicans are promoting George Hansel. Asked about that, Hansel said he contacted the GOP to ask that they not promote his events. Greenwald said he’ll take the Democrats’ help, though he hadn’t asked for it.
We have no doubt that in the city’s long history, the parties have contributed to the campaigns of some candidates for city office, whether financially or logistically. But when it’s at the point where the candidates’ party membership is being touted as an issue in the election, which is where it appears this race is heading, that’s unfortunate.
Note there’s a difference between the parties exerting influence on municipal campaigns and actually having candidates run as Democrats or Republicans. Keene’s city charter specifies its mayor and councilors are nonpartisan positions. No “D” or “R” appears on the ballot beside a candidate’s name, and any primary that’s held is simply to winnow the overall field, not to decide a party’s winner.
We’d venture that if presented with both mayoral candidates’ positions on city issues and their history as councilors, voters would be hard-pressed to determine the political party of either. That’s largely because most issues relevant to the running of the city aren’t ideological — they’re practical. But it’s also due to the way both candidates have conducted themselves on the council. Their records — their votes, questions and comments — have not revolved around what’s best for a political party, nor seemed to reflect any allegiance to party platforms. Rather, they’ve done what all local officials ought to do: They’ve made their choices based on what’s best for the city and its residents. We suspect either will continue to do so as mayor.
There may be potential benefits to having partisan local elections. One is turnout: the political parties are better than individual candidates at mobilizing voters, and at getting a message out. Having party backing means having to raise less because the party is doing some of the work. Also, some political scientists say a party affiliation helps cue in voters to a candidate’s likely approach and positions.
We’re not certain that’s an advantage, however. In a city the size of Keene, it might be preferable to force candidates to explain themselves and voters to research who they’re voting on rather than to rely on political labels.
The question is whether it’s better to have more voters, with many of them driven by party affiliation, than fewer voters, who are all invested in — or opposed to — the candidates themselves. Having more, but uninformed, voters isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The chances are excellent, too, that involving the political parties in local elections means inevitably that money will become a bigger factor in such races. Keene is not a large city. It would be a sad day when and if the ideas of a worthy candidate for mayor or council were lost in the noise of a campaign reliant on attack ads over substantive positions.
There’s also this: According to research published in the Journal of Law and Politics, city council elections nationwide have fewer closely contested races when the positions are partisan. In Keene, one might gather the heavy majority of Democrats would, in a partisan council or mayoral race, lead to GOP candidates winning rarely, if ever.
That would assuredly deprive the city of many qualified candidates. Perhaps Hansel himself, or other current councilors who have proven themselves valuable to the city, would not have bothered running.
Such a preemptive and exclusionary culling would be a loss for the city.