GEORGE KENNEDY: Municipal elections will show how enraged citizens are

Thursday, January 10, 2013 | 4:17 p.m. CST; updated 10:12 a.m. CST, Friday, January 11, 2013

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the city department where Bill Weitkemper worked. **An earlier version of this story misstated Sullivan's connection to GRO. The organization does not endorse individual candidates.

You probably remember Mayor Bob McDavid’s observation last year that a politician who wants to stay on the job should be wary of opposing “an engaged citizenry.” It was one of our mayor’s more insightful utterances.

Now that the filing deadline for City Council has passed and we know who the contestants are, we’re about to learn just how engaged — or enraged — the citizenry of Columbia really is. (Our City Council, of course, is nonpartisan. That doesn’t mean it’s nonpolitical. Nor does it mean that ideology is absent.)

At this week’s council meeting, we saw one clear triumph for the power of public opinion. That was the council’s vote to disband the advisory board it had set up in an attempt to placate that opinion about the so-called Enhanced Enterprise Zones. We also saw a couple of aggressive attorneys succeed in stimulating second thoughts about a delay in allowing the historic Niedermeyer apartments to be replaced by high-rise student housing. That attempted delay was supported by many of the same folks who hated the EEZ.

Mayor McDavid has supported both the EEZ and higher residential density downtown. He’ll be opposed in the April election by both Sid Sullivan, who shares the same anti-EEZ sentiment at the advocacy group Grassroots Organizing,** and a newcomer to town named Sam Allison, a liberal refugee from Indiana.

Fellow incumbents and Chamber of Commerce favorites Daryl Dudley and Gary Kespohl will also be challenged from the left. In the Third Ward, we’ll see a third round of the Kespohl-Karl Skala hand-to-hand combat, in which each has won once. Councilman Kespohl backed the EEZ. If the electorate is really revengeful, that should work in Mr. Skala’s favor.

The Fourth Ward campaign promises to be more complicated. Councilman Dudley won three years ago because two progressives split the vote in a ward that usually leans left. This time out, he again has two opponents. One is Ian Thomas, who just left his job as the city’s chief promoter of pedestrian and bicycle travel. The other is Bill Weitkemper, who recently retired as in-house gadfly of the *Public Works Department. His announcement of candidacy made clear his contempt for the city’s current management.

In a head-to-head contest, the inclination of the ward would favor Mr. Thomas. The wild card is Mr. Weitkemper. If the voters are angry, he’s their man.

Then there’s the Fifth Ward, where three candidates are running in the Feb. 5 special election to fill the seat vacated by Helen Anthony. Left to right, they are Mark Jones, Susan “Tootie” Burns and Laura Nauser. Ms. Nauser is seeking to reclaim the seat she occupied for six years, until she stepped down in 2011 after a losing run for the legislature as a Republican. Mr. Jones has worked for Democratic candidates and is now political director of the Missouri National Education Association. Ms. Burns, a banker turned professional artist, has been a leader of civic organizations ranging from the Grasslands Neighborhood Association to the Columbia Art League.

As in the Fourth, a two-person contest would be easier to handicap. I know some liberals who worry that a Burns-Jones division of the left-of-center vote could hand Ms. Nauser a plurality.

When I step back from the immediate arguments, I think I see one big issue that’s accounting for most of our civic angst. That’s the question of how we want Columbia to grow.

Out or up? If we favor higher residential density close in, we’ll have to accept more buildings with elevators. If the university, which really drives Columbia economically and culturally, keeps on recruiting all those kids from Chicago, don’t we want them living within walking distance of campus? But shouldn’t downtown developers be required to provide parking?

And just how badly do we really want the manufacturing jobs we keep talking about? (It will be interesting to see whether the EEZ just adopted in Centralia lures any new employers. Nobody up there seemed overly distressed at being called blighted.)

Good political campaigns bring out a community’s important questions. Elections allow voters to provide some answers.

Let’s make sure these are good campaigns.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Mike Martin January 10, 2013 | 8:03 p.m.

"If the electorate is really revengeful..."

But the electorate probably won't be. One of the factors missing from Mr. Kennedy's analysis -- and it's an important one -- is when push came to shove, the incumbents who supported EEZ, Ward gerrymandering, and other mischief ultimately backed down and voted with the folks.

That important factor makes incumbent records hard to criticize. Challengers therefore face an uphill battle, not only against the establishment money that will flow to incumbents McDavid, Kespohl, and Dudley -- but more to the point of this column, how to challenge these three men on their records.

Sure, they supported a lot of bad legislation that took citizens months to oppose and unravel.

Sure, the Mayor has said a lot of dumb stuff, most recently when he went on and on about the general redundancy of supporting "more nano-technologists from India" -- emphasis on the "why supporting smart people from India instead of manufacturing jobs just isn't good for Columbia" part.

Sure, both Messiers Dudley and Kespohl have been openly belligerent to their constituents, most notably during the Ward gerrymandering scuffle, when Mr. Dudley wanted to dump the liberal Old Southwest into the First Ward, and reared up so mightily when he was challenged about that, he reminded me of Dilbert fighting with Catbert, necktie on white, short-sleeve shirt in full, upright, and locked position!

But in the end, these incumbents did The McDavid: they did not oppose an engaged citizenry.

"We initially supported a lot of crap, and said a lot of stupid things, but we saw the error of our ways and backed off," sums up those records. The spin-meister says this sounds like "we listened to our constituents."

Either this year's group of challengers comes out swinging and raises lots of money, or it's curtains for them.

The 5th is too early to call, but I'm thinking Tootie Burns pulls it out in a squeaker. Nauser has the name recognition, but Burns has the fire in the belly -- she wants it more than the other two, and voters can tell those things.

-- Mike

(Report Comment)
John Schultz January 10, 2013 | 8:43 p.m.

There must be some enraged citizenry in the Fifth Ward since a large Laura Nauser sign near Rock Bridge Christian Church appeared to be defaced by someone with a spray paint can.

(Report Comment)
Bill Weitkemper January 11, 2013 | 6:33 a.m.

After serving the citizens of Columbia for 37.5 years I retired from the Public Works Department. If your definition of a gadfly is a person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions I don’t mind the label.

As far as your conclusion that my only chance of being elected is if the voters are angry I hope you have misjudged both me and the voters.

I’m betting that my pledge to take our community in the right direction and my promise to promote a government that is accountable, responsible and responsive to all members of the community will appeal to all voters.

As far as being the wild card, I don’t expect to be dealt any wild cards. As long as the deck is not stacked and I get a fair deal I’ll take my chances.

(Report Comment)
Rachel Brekhus January 11, 2013 | 9:07 a.m.

Every time you have two liberals running against one conservative, the conservative will win. Simple electoral math.

(Report Comment)
Mark Flakne January 11, 2013 | 10:01 a.m.

I think Nauser has the ability to reach across the imaginary political divide. She's not a run-of-the-mill, establishment, Romney Republican. She is a thoughtful person who stands strong for Civil Liberties even when that stance might turn off the more establishment conservatives. She tells the truth and does not pander.

As far as the EEZ and related voter angst is concerned, both of the liberal candidates would have likely supported it. Tootie is endorsed by Helen Anthony who voted in favor of creating an EEZ -- TWICE. Jones has already said that he supports corporate welfare plans like the EEZ, even parroting the economic development "tool in the toolbox" phrase.

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy January 11, 2013 | 12:00 p.m.

My apologies to one and all. Two errors in one column is a new personal record, one I don't intend to celebrate or to match.

Mike Martin may be right. We Columbians, when we're not enraged, can be a forgiving, or forgetful, bunch.

Mr. Weitkemper, I used the word "gadfly" in its most positive sense. I don't mean to suggest that an angry electorate is your only chance, but I do suspect that the madder the voters are, the better you'll do.

Anybody who's willing to stand for office, especially an office like City Council, has my admiration.

Thanks for reading.


(Report Comment)

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