Friday, October 23, 2015

Few elections spark passion to motivate voters

We have under way one of the few electoral exercises more anemic than San Antonio mayoral elections.

We’re voting on amendments to the state constitution and for members of the board of the San Antonio River Authority.

It’s easy to understand why turnout is so small for constitutional amendments.

How many citizens are passionate about how we finance our highways, or whether professional sports teams can run lotteries to raise money for charities?

But choosing the mayor for the nation’s seventh largest city?

Shouldn’t that draw more than 12 percent of registered voters in the first round and 14 percent in the run-off, as last spring’s mayor’s race did?

Of course it should.

So why doesn’t it?

Simply put, it is because mayoral campaigns don’t mean much.

That is not to say they are not important.

A wise and politically effective mayor can make a great deal of difference to a city.

But very rarely do mayoral campaigns trumpet the stakes.

Consider last spring’s mayoral race.

What were the issues that would stir the juices of the electorate?

Was it whether we should woo Uber and Lyft back to town?

Was it differences on annexation proposals?

Or was it the fact that incumbent Mayor Ivy Taylor had voted against an ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gays — even though she pledged to uphold the ordinance?

Let’s face it: These are not the sorts of issues that stir the soul.

Presidential elections, by contrast, tend to feature more red meat.

To begin with, the candidates are either Democrat or Republican, labels that carry weight with a large segment of the electorate.

Beyond that, is a candidate more likely to take us to war or to preside over the decline of America as a world power?

Can he be trusted in a financial crisis?

Or with his finger on The Button?

Is a candidate the tool of Wall Street, or the enemy of free enterprise?

Will she keep her government hands off my Social Security?

As I pointed out two weeks ago, mayoral elections feature low turnouts throughout the nation.

But there have been exceptions. And they all feature passions.

In 1969, 76 percent of registered voters showed up in Los Angeles - for a contest in racially turbulent times that featured black City Councilman Tom Bradley against incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty.

Yorty warned of a takeover “by a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals and, if you please, identified communists.”

Bradley lost, but would win four years later.

The same year, New York turned out 81 percent to give progressive Republican John Lindsay a victory over law-and-order challengers.

In 1971, Philadelphia turned out 77 percent of voters to elect Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo in another intense, racially-charged contest.

And in 1983, an 82 percent turnout gave Chicago its first black mayor, Harold Washington.

These were mayoral races that sparked levels of passion that moved people to the polls.

San Antonio has seen only one such race in the past 50 years.

In 1981, 43 percent of registered voters showed up to choose the youthful Henry Cisneros, with his Harvard graduate degree, over Councilman John Steen, a Chamber of Commerce past chairman.

Part of it was the pent-up enthusiasm of an Hispanic community that had never produced a mayor and had been largely shut out of city politics for more than two decades.

And Cisneros won 40 percent of the Anglo vote by effectively presenting the race as one between the past and the future.

It was the sort of stuff that could stir passion.

But such passion is rare in urban affairs.

It results only when the time is right, and a politician knows how to strike the chord.

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