This November, Saint Paul will vote on who will lead Minnesota’s capital city for the next four years. Seven candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to challenge incumbent Mayor Melvin Carter, all political outsiders who are not expected to present any threat to what should be a smooth re-election.
This lack of electoral competition presents a real challenge to democracy at the local level. Traditionally, elections represent the central moment of accountability for political leaders. Citizens can choose to reward good performance through re-election or to punish bad performance by voting for a challenger.
In the context of a one-party town, however, electoral accountability can quickly get murky. This is our situation in Saint Paul, where the Republican Party is effectively non-existent. Saint Paul has not seen a Republican mayoral candidate in decades.
Without a viable opposition party, and without a primary system, we lose this accountability. Competition forces candidates to engage with the opposition, to provide clarity on their positions, and to respond to the public’s concerns. In a noncompetitive election, however, incumbents can gloss over the controversial issues, or skip debates altogether, with little repercussion.
The main hurdle an incumbent mayor faces is securing the party endorsement. However, this is also an area where electoral competition is absent. Simply put, there is little incentive for party challengers to take on a popular incumbent, air out the dirty laundry in public, and risk damaging one’s career prospects in a tightly-knit political community.
It should not be surprising that this year Mayor Carter received the DFL endorsement with no challengers and 89 percent of the ballots cast. What should give us all pause is that only 535 people participated in the endorsement process. As such, a handful of party insiders, as opposed to the 61,646 voters who turned out in Saint Paul’s mayoral election in 2017, have chosen the mayor and the direction of the city for the next four years.
Republican or DFLer (or other), we need to take this seriously. When our mayoral race is a foregone conclusion, determined strictly at the level of party insiders, our democracy suffers. Rather than accept this as a given, we should begin to ask: What would a healthy mayoral election look like in Saint Paul? What can we do to promote a reasonable level of electoral competition?
As a group dedicated to transparency, to good governance, and to making the capital city the best place to live and work, we at Saint Paul STRONG want to hear from you. What can we do to strengthen the electoral process in a one-party town like Saint Paul? Is this even a problem that requires fixing? How does this affect you? We invite readers of MyVillager to share your ideas and reflections by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by sending a letter to the editor of MyVillager.
—David Greenwood-Sanchez, Andy Rorvig, Andy Dawkins and Dave Durenberger
The writers are all members of the Steering Committee of Saint Paul STRONG.
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