When Incumbents Never Lose the City Always Does
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
The future asks very little from us. But it rewards certain things more than others. The future rewards, education, effort, courage, change, clear thinking, big picture thinking, inclusivity, new ideas and careful planning. We learned all this from The Three Little Pigs and other nursery rhymes we all heard before we were 7. This Councilor Matt Whitman launched a campaign for Mayor in Halifax. He's the only challenger.
Today a poll released by some of the Halifax establishment's most insidery insiders puts Whitman's support at about 10%.
The media and most people are openly doubtful of his chances. Mr. Whitman has to spend the valuable media access he has discussing his longshot, against all odds bid rather than how we might all work together to fix a broken city and create a real vision for what the city will look like in the future. Why? Why presuppose that he can't win? People point to the polls, er poll. The now renamed Corporate Research, one of the most mischievous gremlins in the works of our city put it plain - the vast majority of decided voters who vote will vote for Mr. Savage. That's not saying as much as it seems. Only about 30% of people will vote. Of those long studies show that the majority will simply vote for the tallest candidate. Hardly the qualification we're looking for to solve our problems or build a modern future. But hey, that's tens of thousands of years of evolutionary biology at play and it's hard to resist. However, the even bigger factor at play is Incumbency.
The real reason we're sure about Mr. Savage is history. The polls may make Mr. Savage look like hot stuff, but no hotter than past mayors Walter Fitzgerald or Peter Kelly who, to the amazement of the media and all thinking people, were consistently unbeatable. The only certain reason Kelly lost is because he did not run. And so with a long list of mediocre mayors. On the day of one of Mr. Kelly's amazing victories the Daily News media headline put it starkly, PETER KELLY OFFENDS NO ONE And that is literally all it takes for incumbents to win in our current system. A skill Mr. Savage has well in hand. Across the town incumbent councilors win until they they choose not to run any more. With only the occasional exception. In this last election most of incumbent councilors choosing to run again won by acclamation because the system is so stacked no one could be found with the wild activist optimism of Mr. Whitman to even try to run against them. Imagine - a job posting goes up that looks like this: - Available $83,000 + job - no experience required - no educational requirements - work one day per week 40 weeks a year plus correspondence and meetings - great perks - great pension - job security ... and no one applies... This, even to the casual observer, should be a clear sign, along with low voter turnout and non-existent campaign contributions and engagement from regular citizens, that something is deeply wrong. Not one thing. Many things. The media advantage, the 'discretionary' spending advantage (almost $400k per term per councilor), the immediacy advantage, the access advantage, the financial advantage. Incumbents have the game locked in their favour. This isn't unique to Halifax. It's true all over and always has been a quirk of local politics. So, from ancient Athens to the modern US presidency the solution has always been simple, easy, and well known. Term limits. Municipal government is the level that most impacts daily life. It's the level that 'triggers' other levels of government. The Feds did not drive the Convention Centre project for example. It was a creation of Peter Kelly. If you have a problem or run in with government it will almost surely be municipal. So what do we do? If you want a democracy with great citizen representatives you need to have term limits with substantial required political education, either for all citizens or at least those choosing to run in elections. If you want career amateurs. If you want careerists doing whatever it takes to keep their jobs, connected more closely to the bureaucrats and real estate class than typical citizens, with bad habits bordering on criminal, if you want a lack of dynamic change, if you want more of the same, if you want too close relationships with land speculators and moneyed interests, if you want people with lives far removed from that of average citizens, if you want people who have it so easy that they see their success as proof of the rightness of any crazy thing they think or say, then you don't need term limits. As Reg Rankin, who held his council job for a generation, said in the Coast against the idea of term limits, “Where is the court of public opinion? (sic) Is it not from whence they get their authority? Let them decide." Indeed. Words from the wise are as goads. It's not funny that Mr. Rankin doesn't know what these words mean or what he's talking about. It's tragic that he doesn't care. Good systems require good rules and boundaries. However heated, democracy is not a freeforall. It needs a well organized and carefully balanced system to get consistently fair results. If you want good municipal government, if you want a future better than the past, if you want people to be interested, if you want change and new ideas, if you're interested in the long term and big picture, we need term limits.