Let parties compete locally

(Denver Post, Sept. 20) Some ideas are so dumb, they could only be in the New York Times. “One-party autocracy” in the world’s fastest-growing economy, China, has “great advantages,” according to Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Of course, you’d want the rulers to be an “enlightened group of people.” But Friedman certifies the Beijing autocrats are just that. Right. My subject today happens to be local government in Colorado, not central government in China. I’m addressing the problem of "suppose you held an election and nobody came" – illustrated by five metro school districts calling off their elections for lack of candidates. But Friedman’s howler is apropos. Our schools, transit, and municipalities will run more and more Chinese-style if something doesn’t change. The American way is not paternalistic rule by the enlightened. It’s two-party competition. Yet our state, like most others, bans such competition in elections below the county level. What’s good enough for electing legislators, governors, and even presidents – hot political rivalry between Democrats and Republicans, with other parties also in the mix – is deemed not good enough for picking the mayor, council, school board, or RTD Board. Why?

Nonpartisan local governance is a utopian relic from the Progressive era a hundred years ago. Scientific administration by altruistic experts in the “cities of tomorrow” was supposed to replace self-interested power struggles. Do you see any evidence that it worked out that way? Me neither.

Thank goodness the country at least retained a competitive partisan arena in which power could check power at the state and federal level. Imagine how many presidential terms such aspiring progressive autocrats as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson might have wangled from our grandparents, absent a raucous opposition party to say “Not so fast.”

We know of nothing autocratic about Littleton School Board president Bob Colwell or RTD Board chairman Lee Kemp. Both are no doubt good men. But Colwell and two other Littleton incumbents will take another term this fall by default. No opponents filed against them, so the election was cancelled as state law provides. As for Kemp, he was elected unopposed last time. So were seven of his 14 fellow RTD directors.

Fewer than half the RTD director elections in the past decade have been contested races. School board elections are often uncontested as well. Districts in Aurora, Cherry Creek, Commerce City, and Adams 12 have joined Littleton in calling off their 2009 elections. The school boards association is “no longer surprised when races fail to generate interest,” the Denver Post reported.

Even when local citizens do get to choose between candidates, knowing what you’re getting isn’t easy. When voters in my city of Centennial mark their mail ballots next month, for example, they will have to rely on whispers to know which of the contenders for mayor and council are smaller-government Republicans or bigger-government Democrats. It’s like guessing on unlabelled canned goods at the food bank.

Localities tax and spend on our behalf in the many millions of dollars; schools and RTD spend in the billions. Vital ideas and values are involved. Public safety is involved. The stakes are too high to continue with these milquetoast nonpartisan elections. For better government, we should choose the responsible officials via party nominations and platforms.

Competitive political parties are the best idea the Founding Fathers never had. American self-government has thrived under them for two centuries, expanding opportunity and safeguarding liberty – not to perfection, but far better than the enlightened one-party Chinese.

Now Colorado should let the parties compete locally. Lift the lid. Gun the engines. The unions won’t like it; they make hay in the shadowy, apathetic status quo. The media will also object, fearing erosion of their dominance as information brokers. The Democrats, shrewder behind the scenes than Republicans, won’t welcome the change either. But it’s time.