Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Election is Over. Here Comes the Election.

In the American political system, the next election campaign begins the morning after the votes are counted in the last one. Will Sarah Palin run? (Yes.) Will President Obama draw a serious challenger for his party's nomination? (No.) Those are the big early questions for the 2012 presidential election. (You heard the answers here first.) But there are local elections to watch that are much, much closer on the election calendar.

After the jump, a look at the local elections ahead and what, if anything, the state and federal elections just ended can tell us about them.

These local elections are only six months away. We already know the context in which the election campaigns will play out. It's unlikely to change much -- especially the state of the economy -- in the short time before the elections. Still, there are enough variables to make predictions difficult.

In the last Richardson City Council election, in 2009, the opposition focused on issues of good governance -- televised meetings, an online checkbook, a code of ethics. Despite the spirited opposition, the establishment's slate of candidates, as represented by the recommendations of the Richardson Coalition PAC, swept every seat. The opposition lost the election, but the council heard the voters and passed measures dealing with those issues.

In May, 2011, all seven positions on the city council will again be up for election. This time, the opposition is likely to focus on pocketbook issues -- taxes and spending -- instead of good governance. In May, 2010, the City of Richardson passed a $66 million bond package for street improvements, park and recreational facilities, municipal public buildings and neighborhood vitality projects. The margin of victory was smaller than in past bond elections, but it still passed comfortably. The tax rate increase needed to support that bond package was the focus of opposition campaigning. It is likely to be so again in the coming council elections. If the opposition can harness the current Tea Party anti-government fervor, they might succeed in getting their candidates elected. If they can harness that fervor early enough, we might see several current council members retire, increasing the chances of anti-government candidates being elected in May. But it will take organizing skills not shown in the 2009 and 2010 elections. A few cranks asking cranky questions at forums and on blogs won't be enough to lead the anti-government forces to victory.

Politics in the Richardson school district (RISD) have historically been less divisive than Richardson city politics. A couple of decades ago, the home-schoolers and religious fundamentalists ran candidates for the school board in some hotly contested races. But since then, it's been a pretty harmonious group with broad support from parents, taxpayers, and businesses.

In May, 2010, the RISD elected three of seven positions on the Board of Trustees. Two incumbents were re-elected easily and, in the open seat, the candidate most aligned with the existing leadership also won easily. Two different positions on the school board will be up for election in May, 2011. The two incumbents are popular and non-controversial. If they run for re-election, they will be heavily favored.

The RISD is preparing its own bond proposal with money for curriculum, facilities and technology that will likely go before the voters in the May, 2011 election. Most likely, the board of trustees will be smart enough to put together a bond package consisting of essential spending, not luxuries, with a size kept small enough that it will not require a tax increase. They do not want to risk stirring up anti-government Tea Party opposition.

One wild card is the session of the Texas legislature that will meet in January, 2011. The state is facing up to a $25 billion budget deficit. Republican tax-cutters have a huge majority. If Austin takes a hatchet to local school budgets and/or diverts public money to private schools in the form of vouchers, voters might rally around school boards in support of their local schools. But if Austin doesn't go overboard, the anti-government anger that gave those Republicans their huge majority just might jeopardize those plans for building renovations, information technology upgrades and instructional resources that the RISD wants voters to approve.

Stay tuned. A lot can happen in the six months between now and the May, 2011, election.

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