White supremacist and 2018 candidate for the Montana House of Representatives. These two terms together describe John Abarr, a Republican who briefly became a Democrat before returning his affiliations to the GOP. Abarr found himself as the subject of several headlines in 2014 when he suggested recruiting black and LGBTQ Americans to the KKK. Abarr has been denounced by Montana Democrats, but outside of a few national articles, including one published by The Huffington Post, his candidacy has gained limited national attention.
Undoubtedly, part of this silence is due to the fact that he is running at the municipal level, meaning county or local, rather than the national level. Thirty-two states and Washington D.C. have municipal elections in 2018. Also a midterm election year, 2018 will likely attract around 40 percent turnout in most states, a higher rate than most municipal elections that do not happen in midterm or presidential years. Regardless, these races will, in all probability, receive little to no national media coverage and may even be ignored by national political parties and interest groups.
The United States frequently disregards municipal elections. This is perhaps best exemplified through the control outside organizations, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have on local government institutions. ALEC brings together conservative think-tanks, corporate employees and state lawmakers to write legislation. Roughly one in four elected local representatives are members, and ALEC makes its painfully easy for these members to introduce legislation, providing them with bill templates that only require a state name to be swapped out before the bill can be introduced on the floor. The issue is, many of these bills favor corporate interests as opposed to the interests of American citizens.
This is partially the fault of the parties themselves, which, over time, have become increasingly laser-focused on winning the House, Senate and presidency. However, voters who fail to pay attention to local policies are also at fault.
This attitude of apathy and disinterest when it comes to municipal and local politics is also present on Stanford’s campus. There are few campus discussions hosted related exclusively to local issues. We talk about Refugee Resettlement with Jeremy Weinstein and Kirk Bansak, and invite major thought-leaders such as Samantha Power to campus while neglecting to discuss issues such as transportation, local education and public housing with similar interest and vigor.
There is no data on the percent of Stanford students who vote in municipal elections alone, but previous data collected on voter rates among Stanford students suggest that few students pay much attention to midterm elections, suggesting that interest in purely local elections is even lower.
Thirty-nine percent of Stanford students voted in the 2012 presidential election. However, as of 2014, when the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was no longer up for debate, only 15 percent of Stanford students voted. This figure is lower than the 18.9 percent average turnout rate among other research institutions such as Yale University and Princeton University.
Despite our own apathy, municipal and local politics play a crucial role, not only in the creation of state level policy, but also in the selection and training of the next generation of government leaders. The municipal elections of today are selecting the politicians of tomorrow.
Our national ignorance of and apathy toward local politics limits our ability to audit and affect who will be the future leaders of our political parties.
Despite some advancement of the “rookie” politician, someone who, despite having no previous experience in public office, wins an electoral competition placing them in the House or Senate, the majority of politicians that eventually gain national power seats were originally involved in local politics in some capacity.
Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Senate minority leader, began his political career in the New York State Assembly. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate majority leader, was elected to the position of Judge and Executive in Jefferson County, Kentucky long before he ever ran a Senate campaign. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) served in the Iowa House of Representatives.
Anyone who currently dislikes these figures should reflect on the simple fact that if Schumer, McConnell and the others had not originally been elected to a local political office, they likely would have never climbed the ranks to serve in their current positions. Alternatively, those who support these figures should appreciate the fact that they would likely not be present, nor would they have power on the national stage without those early municipal victories.
Each of these realizations leads us to the same conclusion: municipal elections are the first test, the first screening of political candidates. If we, as citizens, neglect our electoral duties at this early stage, we will only find ourselves with less and less satisfying ballot options as the years advance.
In 2018, selecting the next generation of political leaders is more crucial than ever. Why? Because it is a year that promises to be not only a political turning point, as the exact balance of power between Democrats and Republicans continues to be in question, but a demographic turning point. Early information on potential 2018 candidates suggests that the names of many women may be gracing the ballots in November.
Specifically, it has been widely reported that 390 and 49 women respectively are expected to run for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate. However, more than 26,000 women have reached out to Emily’s list, an organization which aims to recruit and train pro-choice Democratic women to run for public office, a sign that the roughly 440 women running for national office are simply the tip of the iceberg. The rest of those 25,500 women will likely be found on ballots for municipal races.
They will only become fully elected officials, and rising political stars, if we turn out and support these women.
On the other hand, individuals such as John Abarr will only lose and be sent to the political grave of failed candidates and campaigns if we advocate against these vapid figures in our own hometowns.
As Stanford students, we need to decide if we can tolerate our own apathy or if we want to be able to say that we had a role in keeping John Abarr’s explicitly white supremacist views of out of a position of power.
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu