Incumbents really don't have an advantage in local elections

First published: November 06, 2006

It is sometimes said: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

That Irish expression, first published in an Elizabethan collection of proverbs by Richard Taverner, keeps coming up in conversation around the municipal elections in two weeks. As voters across Northumberland try to make decisions, the feeling of many people is one of anxiety and despair rather than excitement. The four-year term seems to have people thinking a bit harder about the decision, since more than one-person mentions in passing that any mistakes we collectively make at the ballot box will haunt us for a longer period than ever before.

Maybe the factors at work are more smoke and mirrors and some interesting premises deserve careful consideration in advance of making any final choices.

First, incumbent are always thought to have a distinct advantage. While we don’t like to think of our elections as popularity contests, political operatives and scholars recognize the ability of a successful politician to mobilize a particular group of people to vote for them. Then, it is up to the election team to get those people out to vote on Election Day. It is a major factor in winning. It is nothing to see highly organized political machines use volunteers to call supporters to ensure their commitment and then go to great lengths to make sure every last one of them votes.

There is also an advantage to being in office for any length of time because you meet more and more people. This means, the candidate’s circle of influence grows larger and larger, making their base of power even greater.

The implication of this tactic is rather alarming. You see, politicians only really want their friends to come out and vote. The rest of us, who are undecided, pose the greatest threat to their success. But, then, the question becomes: Who do I vote for? And, that leads us back to the Irish saying. It seems better to elect someone you already know, even if you are not happy with the candidates, rather than try someone new.

Hang on. Let’s take one example and see what happens when we make some comparisons between the incumbents and the other candidates.

Take for example, the mayoralty race in Cobourg. Peter Delanty is running on his experience and his leadership skills. But when an analysis is done of the press coverage he has received over the last six months, the picture is revealing.

Delanty’s name has appeared 162 times in the Cobourg Daily Star since May. When those are broken down, his name appeared 61 times in “public relation” type stories. These would include ribbon cuttings, birthdays, meet-and-greet and other similar events. His name appeared 50 times merely as a mention. In other words, someone was writing a letter and used his name or someone made reference to him. This means Delanty’s name appeared in stories where he gave his position on an issue or made a statement about a concern in 51 stories. These focused mainly on items like policing, transit, court costs, pay raises and similar issues before council. While these are vital issues, many times Delanty was engaged in boosterism, in other words saying something was great for the town or announcing some beneficial grant. Still more were value neutral. That means he was not giving his position on an issue or taking a stand. And others were merely repetitive, meaning he was saying the same things he said previously.

Now, this is not a very scientific study; nor would it pass the rigors of academic standards. But, it does give a small glimpse into a pattern. Newspapers are a major communication channel to the community. So, we can make a connection between the coverage a politician receives and his or her performance. No doubt, part of a mayor’s job is to attend a large number of public relations events. But, when those outnumber the times a politician is expressing their position on key issues in the community, what does that say about them? Certainly, a lot of work is done behind the scenes and does not make the news. But the media is a major venue for letting us know what is going on. When we don’t see a lot of thoughtful positions being expressed, one wonders. It also says a lot about the job.

Maybe we don’t really need to return sitting politicians. At some point, each incumbent was a newbie and had to learn the ropes. Everyone had to start somewhere. Besides, the civil service walks councillors through the process each time. They answer all questions and provide advice at the drop of a hat. Any intelligent, curious, thoughtful person can really do this job. It just a matter of applying themselves and doing their homework.

And, if a majority of the job is showing up to public relations events, then why can’t any one of the contenders do that. Show up with a big smile and shake a lot of hands. Piece of cake, right?

As for leadership, many of the candidates have credentials demonstrating they can organize and lead people. And, if they make a strong commitment to work with citizens, then what special quality does it really take. It is just a matter listening, building a consensus and responding. Balance that with the factual information provided by municipal staff and away you go. It doesn’t mean it is easy. But, it sure doesn’t take anything special, like the incumbents would like you to believe. Besides, all the new ideas and unfinished business the incumbents keep telling us they want to complete only begs the question: why didn’t you get those things done while you were in office?

Finally, it is really up to us. If we think carefully about the job the incumbents have done over the past three years and the potential of all the candidates, we do have lots of choice. If we measure of the skills it takes to run a municipality, the field is more open than anyone could have thought at first glance. What is most crucial is how we exercise our vote come Election Day. And, if the undecided voters carefully consider the records of those seeking office, maybe there are choices well worth considering. You see, the devil is really in the details.

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