Our nation’s increasingly tribal approach to politics has inflicted a very high cost, not least of which is the presence of a clearly unqualified, racist and perhaps deluded man in the White House. But some of the worst damage has come in ways that we haven’t yet noticed.
Take, for example, the impact on state and local politics. Party affiliation has always mattered at that level, particularly here in the South during decades of Democratic and then Republican control. But what we see today is something different in both scale and intensity. In our current environment, politics at every level has become so subsumed by the conflict in Washington that party identification is literally the only thing that matters.
As a result, voters have become increasingly unwilling to cross party lines, even for an office in which ideology or party play no role. They act as if a vote for a highly qualified Republican or Democratic candidate for dogcatcher, say, might be viewed as an endorsement of that party’s approach to politics at the national level, or even worse, that it’s somehow an act of tribal betrayal to vote person over party.
So local or state campaigns that ought to be about a candidate’s competence, experience, vision and honesty instead become mere echoes of the national argument. Local issues aren’t debated or explored because they aren’t deemed to matter. Good candidates from both parties get ignored, while bad ones get elected solely on the basis of party.
As a rule of thumb, in fact, those candidates who are weaker in terms of competence or honesty tend to lean most heavily on party identification. Case in point: The U.S. Senate race in Alabama, where Roy Moore refuses to debate issues, ducks policy questions and interviews and is relying solely on his Republican label to get elected.
Unfortunately, we’re also seeing a version of that play out here in the race for Atlanta mayor between Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood. By her resume, knowledge of issues, demonstrated commitment to public service and integrity, Norwood is easily the better candidate. Bottoms has had an undistinguished career on the Atlanta City Council, and has survived into the two-person runoff almost solely due to the heavy-handed and intimidating sponsorship of outgoing Mayor Kasim Reed. You get the strong sense that it’s not just legacy that’s driving Reed, but hopes of maintaining control and influence after he has officially left office. That's dangerous.
If you're interested in the better person for the job, look at the record of those two candidates, and look at who knows them best. There’s a reason that most of those who competed against Bottoms and Norwood in the first round of the mayoral race — Ceasar Mitchell, John Eaves, Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard — have come out in support of Norwood, and that former Mayor Shirley Franklin has joined them.
Not surprisingly, then, the main thrust of Bottoms’ campaign has been to try to call upon partisan loyalties even in this nonpartisan race, to paint Norwood as a closet Republican in a heavily Democratic city, with a clear subtext in some quarters that “Republican” is a code word for white.
By law and by logic, none of that should matter. My guess is that Norwood may be more centrist than the city that she seeks to lead, but at the local level, the level where roads are paved and cops are hired and water is treated and goods and services are procured -- where competence and integrity matter most -- she can be the leader that Atlanta needs.