This topic is prompted by an issue that the Idaho Legislature may be considering this session, and I will reference it toward the conclusion of this column. But first, I want to consider the idea of being a partisan. The term as a noun refers to someone who is a supporter, follower, adherent, devotee, champion, fan, fanatic, enthusiast, zealot, stalwart, or booster of a cause, person or party. I suspect that many of us would use that term from time to time about our feelings about a lot of those three things, but I would also say that our interest sometimes wanes, or other interests become more important. When I use the term nonpartisan to describe me or others, that is what I mean. My interests and enthusiasms change.
The idea I am proposing is that most public policy is mostly nonpartisan. We need to organize solutions to public problems. Since all politics is nothing more than the debate about the application and distribution of resources (time, money, property) toward a need, much of that discussion is about what is practical and possible. It usually drifts into partisan areas around the withholding of resources or disagreement that there is a problem to be solved at all. Often, as in the debate about climate change, the notion that there is no problem to be solved has its base in the withholding of resources to deal with it.
Some legislators are proposing a bill that will make city council members have to run with the endorsement of a political party. This is a bad idea on several levels, and it generally fits into a political ideology that favors forcing government action into a narrow realm of individuals who think the same way and support only ideas and people who agree with them. It is against the principles of democracy because most citizens consider themselves independent voters, which is another word for nonpartisan. To force independent voters who have the skills and background to make knowledgeable decisions on nonpartisan local issues into a partisan race usually means that they will forgo any chance to contribute.
Our City Council hires and directs a City Manager who does the heavy lifting of running the city. This form of city government, by its design, takes political patronage out of the equation. If you want the sad tale of a strong mayor form of city government, look at Chicago. Strong political influence has enabled an unenviable level of corruption—real and implied.
I go so far as to say that any level of government beneath the State of Idaho itself should be nonpartisan. I’d like to see the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Treasurer be nonpartisan as well. In some cases, these positions have become assured ways to move out of the legislature into a job that will provide a public pension.
Our County Commissioners run as partisans, but their job description actually runs into the danger of political patronage. They are, in fact, the county managers. I have seen no corruption, but some Democrats are reluctant to make that fact known if they are county employees. Why, when the commission members are hands-on managers as well as policymakers should they be seen as partisan officials? Of course, their political leaning will influence their policy decisions, but why should they often be elected because of political affiliation rather than the voter’s preference for their public positions?
While everyone talks about bi-partisan, which is almost always compromise; why not look for ways to be nonpartisan. It’s a chance to be practical and efficient. Recently, we have become overwhelmed with the idea that we are a divided people, and that is not the truth. We are a people whose attention has been drawn to our disagreements rather than our commonalities. The way we structure our government can make the differences less important.