The Lessons of the 2015 Election
Last night, the election returns confirmed what many had suspected would happen all along: Michael C. Taylor and the incumbent city council handily beat Paul Smith and his slate of challenger candidates. The victory is meaningful, and several lessons can be drawn from what took place.
Among other things, Smith’s success in organizing the petition drive against the Anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance compelled him and several of the challenger candidates to run for office. Convinced that receiving over 8,000 petition signatures represented true victory, they thought they had found support which would sweep them into office. Fortunately for the city, there is a much different threshold one must cross to get somebody to vote for you than there is to get somebody to sign a petition. If you are not honest in the way you go about convincing people to sign a petition, it is easy to mistake a successful petition drive for a barometer on the will of the people. The resulting, deeply flawed indication from the petitions sparked a political campaign that proved to only have a fraction of the support the petition garnered. Petitions are petitions, and elections are elections. Mistake one for the other and you may wind up as disappointed as Mr. Smith and the challengers.
Smart Meter activism informed the campaigns of two of the candidates. At some point, those candidates should have realized that the difficulty they were having gaining traction on the Smart Meter issue in council chambers meant they would face an even more uphill battle trying to win an election on the issue. Smart Meter activism is crackpot activism, and it led to a crackpot campaign. It is little surprise that it wasn’t possible to win election based on pseudo-scientific hearsay and conjecture, even to those candidates, so rather than reconsider their bids, they decided to double-down on bad ideas and attack immigration in a city with a large immigrant population. The immigrant voters stayed away in droves. Bigotry does not win in 2015’s Sterling Heights, nor do crackpots. The city is more sophisticated than that.
The debate over a proposed mosque in the city, even though it gathered a great deal of attention in the media and exposed the xenophobic biases of several of the candidates, ultimately failed to impact the vote the way the challengers hoped. Perhaps more accurately, the Smith camp failed in its attempt to hang the mosque proposal around the necks of the incumbents. The voters could not be convinced that a sitting council which remained neutral on the issue was doing anything other than following the law and remaining within the bounds of its purview on land use decisions. The charges that council was either pro-mosque or anti-mosque were without merit, and the voters ultimately ignored them.
Incumbency is powerful. Nate Shannon, a perfectly reasonable man who has proven to be a perfectly satisfactory city council member, could not get elected in his original bid for office. Yet, after being appointed and serving in the position for nine months, he won the election handily. The difference? The depth and strength of his support, combined with the fact that a city’s voters can be convinced more easily to maintain the status quo than they can be convinced to take the risk of electing someone new. Mr. Shannon, although technically the weakest candidate on the incumbent slate due to the nature of how he got into office, has demonstrated that the campaign dollars flow to the candidates who people can trust to keep the city on an even keel. This made all of the difference in the world.
The difference in the percentage of the votes between the new Mayor Pro-Tem, Joseph V. Romano, and the candidate who was re-elected with the least number of votes, Maria Schmidt, is 1.26%. If you look at the vote counts, the council candidates were all within a few hundred votes of each other in an election that counted over 88,000 votes. My conclusion? The difference between the Mayor Pro-Tem’s support and any of the other re-elected council members is statistically insignificant. There is no council member significantly stronger or weaker than the rest of the pack. On the other hand, the difference between the candidates who were re-elected and the challenger candidates was vast: at minimum, over 5,000 votes. My contention from the very beginning of this campaign was that the challengers would be extremely lucky to elect one candidate, and that Mr. Smith had no chance of being elected at all, and although I’m a little surprised about the order the challengers finished in, my basic premise proved to be right.
In the end, a very poor-quality group of challenger candidates took on a well-established group of incumbents, and predictably, the challengers lost. Much will be made by the losing side in the coming weeks about how voter apathy is to blame for the election results, but I maintain that the voters who came to the polls were the ones who made the right choice; in other words, only the best qualified voters were the ones who showed up. This morning, Mr. Smith posted to one of his Facebook pages that his campaign signs will be collected beginning today in preparation for another election bid in 2017. He should save his time and money and just throw them away instead: a repeat of this election in 2017 will have no different results. His political career in Sterling Heights is finished.
Finally, a personal note to my readers: this blog has been running for about five years now, and it had its best week ever over the last seven days in terms of page views. Thank you for your readership, it is very gratifying to see people coming to the site to see what I have to say. I appreciate your support, feedback, and referrals of the site to your friends and neighbors. I feel very fortunate to have an audience, and I will continue to work to make your time spent reading here worthwhile.