Joe Morris: City race has three kinds of candidates

Published 7:27 pm Saturday, October 10, 2015

By Joe Morris

Special to the Salisbury Post

The Salisbury City Council race is shaping up to be very interesting. It remains to be seen whether it will be competitive. With 16 candidates vying for five council seats, anything can happen.

There are a number of candidates who have the potential to lead our city in a positive and progressive way. Some candidates have taken a more critical, if not confrontational, approach.

I have followed many of the campaign statements, on all sides, through the newspaper and online commentaries. No doubt, there are many complex issues facing our community. A variety of strategies and proposals are being debated to address them. The outcome of the election will determine which perspectives are forged into public policy.

Too often, Salisbury citizens, especially in off-year elections, have a tendency to let friends and neighbors elect their council representatives. In other words, our community’s propensity for low voter turnout is dismal.

For example, in the 2013 election, only 2,598 Salisburians out of 15,994 registered voters (16 percent) actually bothered to vote. It was not much better in 2011, when only 20 percent of eligible Salisbury voters made their way to the polls.

There are number of factors that contribute to this underwhelming level of electoral participation. Wide-spread complacency, perceived inconvenience, general satisfaction (or disillusion) with incumbents and lack of confidence in the electoral process feed this phenomenon. I am sure there a host of other reasons, both valid and inane, that contribute to a decision not to vote. It really is too bad.

Energizing an electorate in a municipal election is an art as much as it is a science. From my perspective, local candidates try to connect with voters in three ways:

• Some candidates will emphasize generally positive, proactive messages about building on community strengths, achieving consensus among citizens, taking stock of the good things happening in town and expressing a deeply committed resolve to “fix” very real concerns that are problematic on a citywide level. These candidates will acknowledge that our community challenges did not emerge overnight and that resolving overarching, societal issues, including poverty and crime, will take considerable effort, vigilance, and time. This approach will appeal to the optimists among us — people who are hopeful for our future. Quite a few of these folks actually vote in Salisbury.

• There are other candidates who will suggest that things are completely awful, that Salisbury is “broken,”  that we are in a state of community denial about everything, and that the only solution is to “clean house.” These candidates want to fire the police chief, defund investments in the downtown and sell Fibrant (at a loss if need be). While this perspective cannot be dismissed out of hand, it appeals to a voter base I’ve never really observed in Salisbury. Candidates who try to appeal to these voters will likely be disappointed by the results.

• There are also candidates who offer no real message or offer a message so incoherent that voters will not give them a second thought. Taken in context with a general lack of name recognition, and, in some cases, the absence of any meaningful record of community service, I predict these candidates will receive only a smattering of votes.

But enough of my punditry.

The important thing in this election cycle is that Salisbury voters use all of their votes. With a large field of candidates representing a wide range of political styles and ideologies, there may be a tendency for voters to “single shot” for their candidate of choice.

This is a bad idea for two reasons.

The first is that we have a city council made up of five council members. We need all the help we can get. It is extremely important that we elect the five best candidates available to fill those seats. Addressing the important issues that we face as a community will require a full council of competent and dedicated public servants.

Secondly, every vote matters. Not using all of your votes has the effect of strengthening the position of candidates you would never support. Votes should never be conceded. I have actually had candidates tell me that they are encouraging their supporters to cast single-shot votes. That tells me that these candidates are really more interested in being elected than serving the community. This is not in the best interest of Salisbury.

At the end of the day, I am an optimist and I vote. Join me. Vote for the five Salisbury City Council candidates who you believe will serve us well. As Salisbury citizens, it is our duty.

Joe Morris is development director for the LandTrust of Central North Carolina and formerly served as planning director for the city of Salisbury.