When Spokane signed up as the first city in a novel nationwide presidential preference primary, the dreams for CityVote were lofty.
Jump-start the presidential campaign with a discussion of urban issues.
Entice candidates to spend less time pandering to voters in the hills of New Hampshire and cornfields of Iowa and more time in the streets of the nation’s cities.
Bring the big-name candidates to Spokane for a nationally televised debate on the environment a year before the 1996 election.
“CityVote will change where they campaign,” predicted organizer Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif.
With Coeur d’Alene joining the effort earlier this year, the Inland Northwest became one of the best-represented areas of the country for CityVote.
After more than a year of laying the groundwork, Agran and his special plebiscite are finally attracting national attention - a mention in Newsweek and a lengthy report on PBS’ “MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.”
Campaign directors no longer reply “City what?” when asked about the straw poll.
But reality, so far, is more down to earth than those early dreams.
Less than a month before the first scheduled debate in St. Paul, Minn., many campaigns are hesitant to commit to the forums. Most aren’t sure what to make of the results of the Nov. 7 balloting.
“We’re still trying to determine the level of energy to expend on the CityVote process,” said Terry Holt, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
“It’s an interesting idea,” said Dick Durham, a Seattle attorney working with the campaign for Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. “But all straw polls are kind of straws in the wind. You get one kind of sample in Tumwater and another in Spokane. It just doesn’t tell you much.”
Some jurisdictions, including the unincorporated areas of Spokane County, are being told to stay out of the vote.
Spokane County commissioners could vote as early as Tuesday to keep the organization’s 21 names off the ballots in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The state Attorney General’s office and the county’s civil attorney say commissioners don’t have the legal power to place such an advisory vote on the county ballot.
Counties can only ask their voters for advice on issues they control, said Jeff Evan, a deputy attorney general. “The county doesn’t have the authority to decide who the president is going to be.”
The city of Spokane, which has a separate charter, can place the names on its ballot.
Thus Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will be among at least 19 cities that will ask voters on Nov. 7 to pick among 21 possible presidential candidates. Metropolitan areas as big as Minneapolis-St. Paul, and towns as small as Fayette, Mo., have signed up.
The Northwest leads the nation with participants, with eight cities - six in Washington state and two in Idaho.
Organizer Agran, himself an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1992, said that may be a result of the region’s “pioneering spirit” and willingness to try something new.
“It may also be that people are sensing that (the region) has been left out of things in presidential elections recently,” he said.
Three debates, each with a separate theme, are scheduled and a fourth is being discussed. Invitations for the Oct. 22 debate in Spokane went out last week, and sponsors The Spokesman-Review and Cox Cable are trying to inject even more innovations into the local forum.
The newspaper and the cable system received money from the Bullitt Foundation to sponsor a series of “Ice Cream Conferences.” Residents of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will be asked to bring neighbors together to discuss the environment, which is the topic of the Spokane debate.
Participants will be given a certificate worth $20 for ice cream and the fixings. In return, they will be asked to answer a series of questions related to local, state and national environmental concerns.
“Our big focus is to get people reconnected with politics in a way that really matters,” said Chris Peck, editor of The Spokesman-Review. “This is a grass-roots, locally grounded interactive way for people to think about what national issues mean to them in their own back yard.”
Campaign staffs haven’t yet received the invitations to the Spokane debate, and most wouldn’t say whether candidates would attend.
Organizers for the St. Paul debate have had limited success thus far getting firm commitments from front-runners for the Oct. 6 forum.
“It’s a fascinating crapshoot. Everybody is trying to figure out ‘What’s the spin?”’ said Bill Hanley, vice president of news and public affairs for KTCA, the public television station that will broadcast the debate.
Hanley said the St. Paul debate has firm commitments to attend from Jesse Jackson, Lugar and Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial Democratic candidate. It has also received polite rejections from former Army Gen. Colin Powell and billionaire-populist Ross Perot.
Although neither has announced a candidacy, both Powell and Perot are on the CityVote ballot, as is Jackson. All are listed as independents, and Agran points out that CityVote will be the first real test for some of the nation’s favorite hypothetical candidates.
Agran believes the response to the debate invitations will be “slow and grudging until the end.” But the chance for a national television audience - C-Span has agreed to broadcast the forums - will prove too tempting, he predicted.
If one major candidate decides to participate, the others will too, Agran said.
Perhaps, say campaign staffers. But CityVote organizers need to realize the schedule is hectic and full.
“There are an awful lot of joint appearances,” said Holt, a Lugar spokesman. “CityVote might have been a more urgent matter for presidential candidates if they were all Democrats.”
Urban voters tend to lean Democratic, while suburban and rural voters lean Republican, he noted.
Lugar, for example, has no plans yet to participate in the Spokane debate or the third forum, in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 29.
Spokesmen for California Gov. Pete Wilson, Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and Gramm all said they had not made a decision. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is not planning to attend the debates, a spokesman said.
Some longtime campaigners question the wisdom of holding debates and a straw vote more than a year before the real election.
Durham, a Seattle attorney active in many state and national campaigns, said CityVote is an interesting idea. But he questions anything that pushes the presidential campaign forward.
Many people feel the campaign already starts too early, with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 12 and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 20, he said.
But Agran argues the candidates
have been pushing the process forward themselves, campaigning actively since the beginning of 1995.
“CityVote has no bearing on when the campaign begins. It will just force them to spend more time in America’s cities,” he said. “And that would be a refreshing change of emphasis.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE CITIES Here is a list of cities participating in the CityVote presidential preference primary on Nov. 7, and the population of each city. Spokane, 177,196 Coeur d’Alene, 24,566 Moscow, Idaho, 18,519 Tacoma, 176,664 Olympia, 33,840 Wenatchee, 21,824 Lacey, Wash., 19,279 Tumwater, Wash., 11,200 Tucson, Ariz., 405,390 Minneapolis, Minn., 368,383 Newark, N.J., 275,221 St. Paul, Minn., 272,235 Rochester, N.Y., 231,636 Pasadena, Calif., 131,591 New Haven, Conn., 123,966 Greenburgh, N.Y., 83,805 Boulder, Colo., 83,312 Lowell, Mass., 99,873 Fayette, Mo., 2,888 The following cities may participate if questions about legal authority can be resolved: Baltimore, 736,014 Boston, 574,283 Iowa City, Iowa, 59,313
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