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What’s your party? In local elections the question is starting to matter

In theory, elections for dozens of city, county and regional posts are legally nonpartisan in Orange County, with ballots that don’t include party labels next to candidates’ names.

The reasoning is — or, rather, was — that local races are about local issues. Fixing potholes and keeping clean water flowing to your house are government functions that work best when they’re not subject to the kind of partisan haggling that comes with issues like gun control and abortion rights.

And voters used to go along with that. A generation ago, it would have been unheard of for a resident of, say, Irvine, to ask a council candidate knocking at the door about their party affiliation, said Randall Avila, spokesman for the Republican Party of Orange County.

No more. As Orange County’s demographics have changed, and as Democrats have grown in power in a county once dominated by Republicans, party politics and party affiliation are becoming increasingly big factors in local races.

Katrina Foley, who has won seats on a school board and the Costa Mesa City Council before her recent election to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said voters often want to know her party affiliation. Some voters dismiss her out of hand when they learn she’s a Democrat. But during her most recent campaign, she said some voters also told her, “Good, I’m not voting for any Republicans this cycle.”

Avila, the GOP spokesman, said parties recognize the shift among voters and are responding accordingly. “Both parties have stepped up and taken a more proactive role in a lot of these nonpartisan races.”

Candidates get it, increasingly asking for official endorsements from the local branches of the Democratic and Republican parties. And party leaders are playing along. This year, the OC GOP named Sheriff Don Barnes, a Republican, its “County Elected Official of the Year,” even though Orange County Sheriff is officially a nonpartisan seat.

Arguably, lingering “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules about party affiliation in local races might have helped Republicans in recent years. Even though registered Democrats have outnumbered registered Republicans in the county since 2019, the GOP has held its long-standing majorities in most local jurisdictions. Republicans now hold nearly 55% of county and local seats while Democrats hold just over 33%.

But with party labels increasingly attached to candidates in nonpartisan races, and with county voters leaning leftward, the GOP edge is slipping. Democrats are winning more seats on city councils, school boards, and library, sanitation and other special district boards,

“At the local level last year, we took 20 seats from Republicans,” said Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. Those wins, she added, extended into traditionally GOP communities such as San Clemente and Fountain Valley.

What’s more, when Foley won her supervisor bid, in March, the Republican advantage on the Board of Supervisors shrank to 3-2. Until 2018, Republicans had held a 5-0 majority on the Board for at least a decade.

Experts say the shift toward partisanship in nonpartisan races has advantages and disadvantages for the parties, candidates and residents of these political subdivisions. They also don’t see the trend going away anytime soon.

Natural progression?

Today’s nonpartisan elections have their roots in the progressive movement around the turn of the 20th century, said Matthew Jarvis, an associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton.

“Their big enemy was concentrated power” held by oligarchs and robber barons who used their industrial wealth to buy political influence, he said. As progressives made inroads at the ballot box, Jarvis said, oligarchs of the era came to believe that “if they bought off the state party boss, they could own a state.”

So progressives pushed for and won some electoral reforms — ballot initiatives, recalls of elected officials, and non-partisan elections. The thinking behind those moves, Jarvis said, was that reducing power of political parties “would empower everyday people.”

That mindset lasted beyond the progressive era. Even a few decades ago, Jarvis said, party mattered less in local elections because “ideology and partisanship were not particularly well aligned.”

They are now. Avila dates the era of hyper-competitive races here to 2016, when voters in traditionally red Orange County favored Hillary Clinton over that year’s Electoral College winner, Donald Trump. Two years later, the county was home to two of the 10 most expensive House races in the country and Democrats took all of the county’s congressional seats.

Now, Avila said, that competitiveness is trickling down to local races, with noticeable results.

In 2019, 27 out of 34 city councils in Orange County were majority Republican; today, 25 are dominated by GOP politicians. Republicans still have a clear advantage on local water and special districts, holding 65% of seats to Democrats’ 17%. But last year Democrats took their first-ever majorities on most school boards, winning nearly 49% of seats to Republicans’ 39%.

Sacramento-based political consultant Paul Mitchell thinks the partisan trend reflects the county’s changing demographics.

“Part of it might be just the natural progression of Orange County not being entirely Republican everywhere.”

In communities where one party has solid control, such as the Democrats’ hold of politics in San Francisco, partisan affiliation doesn’t play a key role in local elections. But in communities where power has recently shifted — such as San Diego, which shifted from red to purple to blue a few years before Orange County — Mitchell said local elections tend to be more partisan.

What’s more, the rise of district elections — a trend that over the past decade has touched much of Orange County — can result in the clustering of like-minded voters. That, Mitchell said, creates an incentive for candidates from the dominant party to embrace their partisan identity.

Strategic reveal

The OCGOP is getting more requests than ever to endorse in nonpartisan races, Avila said. That recently led the party to create a new candidate questionnaire focused less on statewide or national issues and more on matters of local control.

Choosing whether to tout a candidate’s party affiliation has always been a strategic decision for the GOP.

“It really depends, city by city, whether or not it’s helpful to be endorsed by the parties,” Avila said.

The calculus, Avila explained, is logical: Republican candidates in safe GOP areas are likely to seek the party’s official support and public backing, while Republican candidates in areas where Democrats are strong fear being hurt by their party’s endorsement.

But if the OC Democratic Party endorses a candidate in a local race, it can force the GOP’s hand. And party leader Briceño said her strategy is more direct: She wants the OC Democratic Party to recruit, vet and endorse someone in every local race.

“We wear our ‘D’ proudly,” she said.

But both parties weaponize affiliation when it works to their advantage, a trend that might drown out discussion of other, more substantive local issues.

“There’s not a Republican running for a nonpartisan office that a Democrat won’t describe as a Trumpian,” said Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, a Republican. “The flip side is every nonpartisan Democrat running for city council in Orange County, in the smallest city, is Nancy Pelosi Jr.”

Still, getting support from the local party can be worth the risk, even for candidates running in purple districts. That’s because of a political financial tool known as “member communications,” a special category of spending that lets political organizations promote candidates to their own members without the spending limits or reporting rules that apply to regular candidate contributions or independent expenditures used to reach the general public.

In 2020, Avila said the OC GOP spent “well over $100,000” on member communications to announce the party’s candidates to OC’s registered Republicans with mailers and door knockers.

Still, in Orange County, roughly one in nine officials who hold a nonpartisan seat decline to state their party affiliation.

Pluses and minuses

Mitchell, among others, said it’s understandable that some voters worry about partisan politics “infiltrating” local government. But those voters, he said, may have “romantic ideas” about candidates seeking local office so they can fix potholes and build dog parks, not so they can eventually get into the scrum of D.C. politics.

In reality, county supervisor Wagner said partisan ideology has always played a role in how local issues are addressed. While he noted the phrase “there’s no Republican and no Democrat way to fill a pothole” is powerful enough to be a cliche, he believes it’s also flawed.

“That’s not entirely true,” Wagner said. “There are philosophies of governance questions that underlie even filling potholes.”

Fixing a pothole, he noted, could involve questions that seem to have partisan answers: Should the work be done in-house or outsourced? Should it be done with union or non-union labor? Should you only fill half the potholes to save money and lower taxes, or should you use any spare pothole money on social programs?

Other observers see advantages and drawbacks to partisan involvement in local contests.

Cal State Fullerton’s Jarvis said in a nonstop, stressful world where local news sources have significantly dwindled, people can struggle to find information about local candidates. Voters can take cues about candidates based on their name, whether they’re an incumbent — and from their party affiliation.

Mitchell maintains that labeling someone as a Republican or a Democrat is not that different from dynamics that have always existed in local politics — say, between homeowners and renters, or people who live in a city’s hilly areas versus its flatlands.

“Another way of thinking about it is partisanship can sometimes give us cues as to where people are ideologically,” Mitchell said.

But Jarvis said that while party labels might help voters feel like they know what they’re getting from a local candidate, those labels also can suggest a rigid ideological framework that may impede problem solving.

“It assumes the world’s black and white, not gray,” he said. “Democracy is the art of compromise, and (applying modern partisan labels) really doesn’t allow for compromise.”

Supervisors Foley and Wagner agreed that in the day-to-day business of doing their jobs, partisanship doesn’t intrude as much as the current political environment might suggest.

“When you get here, you vote on issues,” Foley said. “And things don’t always break down along party lines.”

With a limited number of partisan state and federal legislative seats to fill, Jarvis noted, most local officials aren’t going to move to that next level. So if they focus on serving constituents instead of pleasing a party base, he said, those politicians “can work for what they see as the public good.”

Mitchell said he wouldn’t necessarily want to see media outlets start to label local candidates in nonpartisan races by party. But he doesn’t think sharing if they’ve received endorsements from one party or the other, or from key figures in those parties, is a bad thing.

“It’s not great to have every local race be determined by party ID,” Mitchell said. “But it’s also not great to have every local race determined by who has the bigger lawn signs, or who’s been in office the longest.”


Source: Orange County Register

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