If you had to choose a word or a phrase to characterize the American voter in these times, which would you choose? Disillusioned? Fed up? Furious? Primed to "throw the rascals out?"
Okay, if voters are so unhappy, why did they go to the polls Tuesday in Pinellas County and, with few exceptions, re-elect the incumbents, often by wide margins?
It isn't tough to spot the trend in the election results.
In Clearwater, six candidates were seeking two seats on the City Council. The voters chose the only two with experience on the council: incumbent Paul Gibson and former council member Bill Jonson, who served from 2001 to 2007. At least three of their challengers were outspoken government critics, but voters gave Gibson 57 percent of the vote in his race, and Jonson garnered 55 percent.
In Tarpon Springs, voters chose as their next mayor David Archie, a longtime city commissioner, instead of Matt King, who has no elected experience. And they chose incumbent city commissioner Chris Alahouzos over challenger Betty Kurpinski. Archie got 57 percent of the vote. Alahouzos got 67 percent.
In Oldsmar, incumbent Mayor Jim Ronecker was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote, though voters had the option of choosing a City Council member who had never been mayor, Suzanne Vale. They also picked former council member Janice Miller over newcomer Tom Eckert. An exception to the trend was the voters' choice for Seat 4. They picked a new face, Linda Norris, over former council member Loretta Wyandt, but Wyandt hadn't served on the council since 1990.
From a field of four to fill three seats, Belleair Beach voters picked the two incumbents, David M. Dumville Jr. and Mitch Krach, along with newcomer Leslie Ford Notaro. Belleair Bluffs voters re-elected Commissioner Joe Barkley. Indian Rocks Beach residents gave an enthusiastic 72 percent of the vote to incumbent Mayor R.B. Johnson. Seminole voters returned Thom Barnhorn to the City Council.
If voters are so unhappy with government, why did they vote for so many candidates who, one could say, are responsible for the way things are?
Some of the typical explanations for the success of incumbents are that they have name recognition, are able to raise more money for advertising and know more, so they comport themselves better during public appearances and candidate forums. Challengers have less money to get their mad-at-government message out, so they often fail at the polls.
That all makes sense. However, with such low voter turnout in local elections, could another factor be that more of the voters are well-informed about their local governments and the reasons officials do what they do, and so have less of a "throw the rascals out" mentality?
Could it even be that we Americans like to complain a lot about government — it seems to be our national pastime — but when it comes to making decisions about candidates in local races, we voters are grateful to those who have been there doing the work we wouldn't take on for nuthin'?
Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]