Columbia, SC — IN THE RUN-UP to Tuesday’s Columbia city elections, I was struck by the number of times our editorial board took issue with the way the candidates we were endorsing had handled significant issues.
I also was struck by the fact that we endorsed all four incumbents on the ballot, even though the City Council has done a number of things in recent months and years that we have found deeply troubling — from its long refusal to let the voters consider empowering the mayor (which finally was overcome only because citizens forced a vote through a petition process) and its rush job on committing taxpayers to $50 million on the Bull Street project (including taxpayer funding for a baseball stadium; a baseball stadium) to its wasteful spending of hospitality tax funds and its penchant for making decisions, or at least receiving routine information that the public ought to be able to see, in private.
It’s not that this was new. We’ve certainly been unhappy with the Legislature, and yet I’ve written endorsements of far more incumbents over the years than of people trying to unseat the incumbents. It just felt stranger in this case, I suppose because I don’t watch the City Council as closely as I watch the Legislature and, perhaps more significantly, because there are just seven members of the City Council. That makes it pretty clear where to place blame when things go bad; the same rarely is true with the 170-member Legislature.
Whatever the reason, I think the factors that came into play as we decided whom to endorse provide at least three useful reminders about how government works.
The most important point is that when people get on their throw-the-bums-out soapboxes, they tend to forget that those bums are going to be replaced by someone else. The question in each election is not whether you’re completely satisfied with the incumbent — if it were, no one would ever be re-elected. The question is how that incumbent stacks up against the other candidate or candidates on the ballot.
I went into our endorsement interviews expecting we would prefer at least one of the challengers, perhaps two or three; I came out feeling like every single challenger had failed to make the case that he would be a better choice — or even an equally good choice. Apparently, voters felt the same way.
The most dramatic example of this was Tommy Burkett, an affable man who told us we needed to replace Tameika Isaac Devine because she had been in office too long but, when we asked what he had to offer, couldn’t come up with much more than “new leadership.”
Another useful reminder is that you can elect a lot of good and well-meaning people to a legislative body, and that body still can end up doing awful things — or at least not doing good things — because those good and well-meaning people have sometimes incompatible definitions of what is good and what is awful, perhaps because they come from different political philosophies, perhaps because they represent very different constituencies.
The best example of this came during the first day of our interviews with the candidates, when challengers Bruce Trezevant and Todd Walter both said they wanted the city to focus on basics. For Mr. Trezevant in the largely low-income District 1, that meant a much larger and more proactive police presence; Mr. Walter in the tonier District 4 gave as an example the need to routinely repair the nets at the city-owned tennis courts.
This is not the same problem that we have in the Congress, and that I worry is starting to creep into the General Assembly, of people who refuse even to try in good faith to reach agreements. In fact, it’s about the opposite problem — of reaching the wrong agreements, or at least the less-than-optimal ones. The unfortunate fact is that while the optimal solution usually can be found when we consider a broad spectrum of opinions, we don’t always choose that optimal solution. And just changing the people who make those choices won’t necessarily fix that — particularly not if, as is increasingly the case, those new people are of the no-compromise mode.
Finally, our endorsements remind us that it’s dangerous to assess our lawmakers based solely on how they voted on a few issues that concern us most, at this moment. That’s not just because they often are being challenged by candidates who would vote the same way (see strong mayor, which both Ms. Devine and Mr. Burkett oppose). It’s because those wrong votes have to be weighed against all the times incumbents voted the way we wanted them to, and against such intangibles as their honesty and integrity and openness, and whether they try to bring people together or drive them apart.
And then we need to compare the sum of that analysis to the sum of a similar analysis of their challengers, which takes us back to that first reminder: An election is never about a single candidate. It’s about all the candidates.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.