Stephen Goldsmith is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was formerly the two-term mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor for operations for New York City.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
News stories from many national reporters suggest the 2009 elections amount to a statement about the Obama presidency. Maybe, but in mayor and governor races local issues usually dominate.
All politics is indeed local. Even if the ongoing economic woes canvas the nation, it is state and local officials that will feel the wrath of voters. Tough times produce dissatisfaction, and the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races essentially rejected incumbency.
A few more lessons from recent elections:
Lesson #1: Taxes matter.
This year's Virginia Governor's race was determined by the tax issue--the winner firmly against new taxes the loser highly ambivalent and ambiguous.
In the 2007 Indianapolis mayor's race, upstart Greg Ballard unseated Bart Peterson, a well respected and much better financed incumbent. Peterson had allowed property taxes to rise dramatically and had appeared to be insensitive to taxes when a small income tax increase occurred shortly before the election.
Historically, without a national race on the ticket, local and state elections turnouts are usually low. Those who do vote, however, appear to be focused on taxes more than ever. As family income becomes more stressed, increasing taxes push against a family's food or gas budget, or even its ability to make the mortgage payment.
Lesson #2: Keeping employees happy isn't enough.
For years, elected officials have made a point of keeping labor happy, with relatively robust health care, and pension packages. Officials have entered into labor agreements where the next guy, not them, had to pay. The bill is coming due. The accumulating decades of pension and health care promises, coupled with longer life spans, has created a big chunk of built-in increases in the cost of government.
In Detroit, Dave Bing has been mayor for about eight months, serving out the term of the disgraced Kwame Kilpatrick. In that time, Bing has laid off workers and demanded a 10 percent wage cut to help deal with the city's massive budget deficit. Hard measures, to be sure, but Detroit's unemployment rate is a staggering 25 percent. Voters rewarded Bing by handily voting him in to a full four year term.
The uncomfortable reality is that local officials will be in a tough position between voters and employees. The squeeze will likely prompt efficiencies--or squeeze some incumbents out of office.
Lesson #3: Quality of life matters.
In 2009, jobs mattered much more than social issues, not just to those unemployed but to those anxious about the future. Fundamentals count. Safe streets, infrastructure that works, and schools that teach are what matter most.
In Northern Virginia, voters worry about congestion. In Atlanta, voters worry about unemployment. Candidates who stress universal health care or some of the wedge social issues are not being well received.
During his term in office, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was a champion of global climate change. But that cause, no matter how important or popular with citizens, did not trump attention to local fundamentals. He lost in the primaries.
Lesson #4 - Deliver results--or else.
In both New York and Boston, incumbent mayors faced stronger than expected opposition, with the New York race ending very close. The voters are restless, and a general sense of malaise lurked behind elections around the country. Though these were local races, the message of lower taxes and the desire for politicians who make the tough choices and deliver results is one likely to reverberate to Washington DC.
Voters in 2009 are telling their elected officials that you cannot tax us into prosperity--there is not enough wealth to redistribute. They want leaders to take on the tough issues that involve quality of life and manage government so as to deliver results--or be ready to find a new line of work.
Promises are fine for getting elected, but delivering effective, low-cost government is the recipe for long term success. Fail at that, and you'll end up like the politician who had to leave office due to illness--when the voters got sick of him.