Now that we know how the voting minority answered the questions raised in the local campaign, an even bigger question remains. What, if anything, does it all mean?
First, the easiest and most obvious conclusion: Our school system has regained its hold on the affections of the citizenry. Not only did the bond issue pass with surprising ease but Jan Mees and Jim Whitt were the only incumbents on the ballot to win election. Hard-charging and big-spending Jonathan Sessions becomes the first 20-something on the School Board.
Equally clear is the answer to questions about the importance of money and the clout of the business community. It wouldn’t be altogether fair to say that Bob McDavid bought the mayor’s race, but his big-bucks donors certainly got their money’s worth in terms of votes. Daryl Dudley’s victory as the “common man” candidate in the Fourth Ward may be even stronger testimony to the value of campaign cash.
Even before the final results were in, Jerry Wade sounded a little bitter and a lot mournful as he lamented to KFRU’s David Lile the new importance of money in the mayor’s race. Maybe, they agreed, that’s just the price of politics now that our little town has grown past 100,000. Maybe it is, and if it is, the new reality will likely affect not only the conduct of local campaigns but even the identities of local candidates.
Speaking of Jerry Wade and bitterness, the question of the effectiveness of negative campaigning was answered oppositely in his race and in the Third Ward. Jerry reached what I thought was the reasonable conclusion that he was really running against not only Bob McDavid but the so-called “development community.” In forums and fliers, he linked the two in unflattering terms. He lost by a margin so big that a gap remains even when you add together his and Sid Sullivan’s votes.
The Third Ward was the only race marked by real animus. Gary Kespohl and Karl Skala just don’t like each other. The outsider, and his supporters, went after the incumbent with what seemed to me over-the-top accusations and under-the-table innuendo. He won just about as narrowly as he lost in their first round three years ago.
So what does it all mean? Oddly, even a little disconcertingly, Fred Parry had an answer Tuesday night that makes sense to me. As we took a break from bloviating on the radio, Fred suggested a parallel between this election and the national contest of 2008. The winning theme that linked Bob McDavid and Barack Obama, he said, was “change” – tapping into a broad sense of voter dissatisfaction with those in power and a willingness to try somebody new.
Locally, look at the winners. Council members-to-be McDavid, Dudley and Kespohl had in common, besides the Chamber of Commerce endorsement, a total lack of previous involvement in city government. The winning issue – which drew more total votes than the mayor’s race – was the downtown surveillance cameras. That issue was on the ballot because the City Council refused to support it. Even council members not running took a beating Tuesday.
The winning council campaigns also had in common a couple of spurious issues. They blamed the incumbents for lost jobs, when in fact Columbia has fared better in the national recession than most cities. And they saw a crime wave the actual statistics deny.
Still, whatever the causes, the effect seems certain to be change. Will it bring more cops? More development? Fewer regulations? The campaigns would suggest so.
As I left the radio station Tuesday night, I encountered City Manager Bill Watkins. Knowing he couldn’t say much, I asked anyway what he made of the results. His small smile was, I thought, enigmatic. “It should be interesting,” he said.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.