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Nonpartisan Idaho races get scrutiny

Sun., Nov. 8, 2009, midnight

Opinion split on party labels for city-level elections

BOISE – Idaho’s elections last week were all officially nonpartisan city races, but there’s growing statewide debate about what role – if any – political parties should play in those contests.

Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby said he sees a “disturbing trend” toward more partisanship in city elections not only in Idaho but across the country.

“I fall back on the classic statement that there is no Democratic or Republican way to build a street,” he said. “A lot of issues that confront city councils have less to do with ideology, and more to do with problem-solving, working on providing basic municipal services and dealing with quality-of-life issues.”

The Idaho Republican Party Central Committee passed a resolution in June calling for the party to “participate in nonpartisan local elections” and stating that “Idaho’s Republican Party should identify and support the election of Republican candidates to local governments such as city councils and school boards.”

Party Chairman Norm Semanko said, “The position I’ve taken as chairman is that’s a matter for the local parties to decide if they want to be involved. … We would never jump in over the top of the local party.”

Just one official GOP county central committee decided to endorse candidates in an Idaho city election this year, Semanko said, in Bonneville County. There, the party endorsed an Idaho Falls City Council challenger, Alex Creek, who lost by a 2-to-1 margin. Several incumbents were offered a chance at party endorsements but declined them.

“It just wasn’t something that they wanted,” said county GOP Chairman Damond Watkins. “Ultimately, I believe it hurt the brand of the Republican name – well, we lost, we lost hard, and we’ve divided our base.”

On the Democratic side, there were no official party endorsements, but City Council candidates such as T.J. Thomson in Boise and Mike Kennedy in Coeur d’Alene benefited from high-profile endorsements and support from prominent Idaho Democrats like former Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Jim Hansen, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, said, “We do not endorse candidates in nonpartisan races, but of course we’re encouraging people to get involved in their communities at all levels, and highly skilled people should and do run for city office.”

Hansen said he’d actually favor making county races nonpartisan, too. “Then Democrats and Republicans can come forward and endorse and not be punished by their party,” he said.

Brad Corkill, Kootenai County GOP chairman, said he’d just as soon have all the races be partisan. “Party affiliation tends to imply certain values, and it’s best to just be open about it,” he said. “I think it’d be fantastic to have primaries for these races.”

But his county central committee didn’t endorse candidates in last week’s city elections. “What I did is I encouraged everybody on the central committee to pick a candidate and campaign for that candidate,” Corkill said. “And I pretty much left it at that. Because in at least one instance, we had two supposed Republicans running for the same seat, so it was pretty difficult as a central committee to endorse one Republican over another.”

Deanna Goodlander, who won a fourth term on the Coeur d’Alene City Council in a close race against challenger Dan Gookin, said she’s always been a Republican. “But there was an element of the party that supported my opponent, and that element is fairly vocal, in fact extremely vocal,” she said. “I’m not too sure it’s healthy for the party.”

A GOP offshoot group called the “Reagan Republicans,” which formed about three months ago after splits in two other GOP clubs in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, endorsed and campaigned for Gookin and Kennedy’s challenger, Jim Brannon. Though he welcomed the endorsement, Gookin said he’s not thrilled about city races becoming partisan.

“We don’t need, in a local election, people dragging in issues like abortion and gun control and gay marriage and border protection and all those national issues that everyone likes to get up and start beating their chests over,” Gookin said. “Local elections are about streets and parks and managing the budget.”

Corkill said: “It was pretty obvious that the challenger to Mr. Kennedy was a Republican, there’s no question about that – I mean, he’s a member of the central committee. That’s why I think we should be open and make this a partisan race.”

Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University, noted that nonpartisan elections in Idaho tend to draw much lower turnouts than the higher-profile partisan races for state and national office. Switching to partisan races for cities might attract more voter interest, he said. “It might make politics more interesting – I’m not sure it’d make politics any better.”

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