S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0820.elections.htm

Parties should stay out of non-partisan elections
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

AUG. 20, 2006 - - If folks want local elections to be non-partisan, parties ought to butt out. Unfortunately, there seems to be a festering influence of political parties in local government elections for city councils and school boards.

Last year, the Richland County Republican Party announced it would endorse local candidates in the Columbia mayor's race and city council election, a move that led The State newspaper to say the party was trying to "hijack the political process:"

"The most likely effect will be that the very people who ought to run for these essential local offices - - the kind who want to serve the community and not a part - - will refuse to run," the newspaper opined.

No matter, the party went ahead and endorsed.

Just this summer, five school board candidates in Charleston grouped themselves as a slate they call the "A Team." In and of itself, that's fine. But the Charleston group went a big step further as an organized Republican effort to take over the school board. Not only have they hired a former chairman as a consultant, but they have had strategy meetings in the office of the current local GOP chairman.

Fortunately, this "A Team," spearheaded by former Congressman and state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, seems to be imploding. In addition to the public departure of one of the members after an internal spat, the State Ethics Commission has chastised the team for extended joint fund-raising efforts. (As a senator, Ravenel got a local bill passed in the legislature to make Charleston County school board elections partisan; while the bill became law, it was ruled out of order by the U.S. Justice Department.)

"To some degree, 'non-partisan' is a misnomer because the people who get involved in politics tend to lean one way or another," said Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden. "It just seems as though the parties take more interest in the 'non-partisan races' than they used to."


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Nancy Cook, current chair of the Charleston County School Board, agreed there's nothing wrong with a group of candidates running as a slate. But she worries about the increase in partisanship in local elections.

"I understand politics has its place in a lot of things in life," she said. "But in education, one of the biggest things I have seen that has stymied the process is politics. It gets in the way of the best interests of children. And if the concern is not about children, it should be checked at the door."

Across South Carolina, only six of 268 municipalities continue to hold partisan elections, while only four of 85 school boards do so, according to published reports.

Proponents of non-partisan local elections say they need to be free of party influence because local government generally is charged with delivering services - - water, sewer, fire protection, police service and education. There's no way, they say, to pick up the trash in a Republican or Democratic way.

But those who want to make elections more partisan say voters want to know how people align themselves in terms of national politics because that identification tells them something about any candidate's values.

In our book, that's cynical rationalization. Voters are smarter than party labels, which pollsters say have less and less meaning to the electorate.

The point of all of this is non-partisan elections need to be just that - - free of party influence. If individual candidates want to tie themselves to parties as part of their campaign strategy, that's fine. But when political parties take the initiative to partisanize a process, local elections will fall into the same explosive kettle that roils national and state politics and keeps progress at bay.

So when you hear somebody who wants to partisanize a local election, maybe they have another agenda - - to keep things the same. In South Carolina, that's not going to do most folks much good.

Send your ideas to Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, at: brack@statehousereport.com. Brack's book of commentary, Bugging the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click here for more.

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