Democracy is for everybody, not just the rich. So get to the polls!
Local elections are far more important than Mass voters seem to think, given the historically low turnouts for most of them in recent decades. Especially during off-year contests like this year’s. So, for starters, I just want to encourage everyone who is reading this in a municipality that is holding elections to get out and vote on November 5. Particularly working people—who are the focus of this epistle.
Because politics in a democracy is not supposed to be solely the province of millionaires and billionaires. It’s supposed to be for all of us. However, if working people don’t use our franchise to vote for candidates who will fight on our behalf, then democracy itself is in danger.
Not sure if you’re a working person? Well, if you’re an adult and you don’t own a big business or a huge amount of voting stock, then you are probably a working person. If you’re unemployed, but need to find another job to survive, then you are probably a working person. If you consider yourself poor, working class, or middle class, then you are probably a working person. And if politicians don’t snap to attention when you drop them a line, then you are almost certainly a working person.
I understand that working people are busy by default and that many of us are already focused on the 2020 presidential election—which is as high stakes as it gets in the American political system. But much of what happens in our daily lives is determined in no small part by municipal governments. Important decisions about housing, commercial development, transportation, K-12 education, local taxes, public health, and our lived environment are made every day by Bay State mayors, city councilors, selectpeople, town meetings, and school committees.
Failing to cast your ballot in local elections ensures that lots of important decisions that affect your life get made by politicians you had no hand in choosing. Pols who all too often end up doing the bidding of rich and powerful interests. Rather than fighting for justice for working people in an era when it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to make ends meet.
Changing that situation not only requires that more working people vote in local elections, but also that we actually take the time to inform ourselves about different candidates running for local offices. The problem is that many of the few people who cast votes in local elections don’t really pay attention to who they’re voting for. They go by which college degrees candidates hold. Or which neighborhood they grew up in. Or who their friends tell them to vote for. Or worse still, they vote for the candidates who have held their offices the longest.
None of these are inappropriate reasons to back a politician—taken together with an even cursory understanding of that candidate’s political views and closely held beliefs. The problem is that most voters don’t have that understanding when they go to the voting booth. As trustworthy candidate information can be thin on the ground.
Traditionally, working people turned to local news media to learn more about all the municipal candidates—and read debates between their supporters—as well as synopses of campaign debates. But with local news outlets in decline, and regional and national news organizations having little time to cover local politics, it can be hard to find enough good journalism to be able to make a truly informed decision. Even in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, the main cities that my DigBoston colleagues and I cover.
So, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for how working people can become informed local voters. Ideas which, as luck would have it, also hold true in larger elections.
1) Read candidate questionnaires
Most cities and towns have at least a few civic and political organizations that put together lists of questions on key issues that they ask all the candidates in all the local races. Find them and read them over—trying your best to get your hands on questionnaires organized both by groups you like and groups don’t like. To ensure that you get candidates’ answers to broad array of questions. This alone will give you an excellent idea of which politicians are interested in standing up for working people’s interests.
2) Find out who each candidate takes money from
It’s important to know how campaigns are financed. If your locale has at least one functioning news outlet, you may find articles by professional journalists that cover this ground. But failing that, Commonwealth voters can go to the Mass Office of Campaign and Political Finance website at ocpf.us and see who donates money to the campaigns of every candidate you’re considering voting for—and which candidates have the most money. Pay special attention to big donors who happen to run or own large corporations and banks. Because that will usually correlate to the candidates toiling on behalf of the local establishment, and against the interests of working people. Which is why it’s often good to support candidates who focus on raising lots of small donations from lots of regular folks. If their politics seem solid.
3) Ignore attack ads
Advertising by candidates, if done with a light touch, can be helpful and informative for voters. Unfortunately, many campaign ads are just rank propaganda—and filled with questionable assertions about the opponents of the candidates who buy them. So they are best ignored. Instead, as above, search out information about candidates’ actual positions. Preferably by buttonholing them at public events and asking them for their positions on key issues.
4) Attend candidate forums and debates
The events may be called candidate forums or debates, but whatever they’re called working people should always try to attend at least one for every significant local race. They are the best places to hear candidates’ ideas from their own mouths—plus watch how they engage with other candidates’ ideas and handle themselves under duress. A candidate that can’t take a bit of sparring with an opponent will probably not be the best person to represent working people’s interests.
5) Find the accessible candidates
Any candidate running for local office—especially one who purports to represent the interests of working people—should be easy for any constituent to contact on short notice. As the election approaches, try emailing or calling the campaign offices of candidates you like and ask to speak to them about any question you have about their policy proposals. They should get back to you quickly. If they do, it’s likely they will continue to be easy to reach once in office. For those candidates already in office, you can contact them with a constituent services request. Or contact their campaign office as with other candidates. Same drill. If they get back to you—a typical working person—quickly then they probably aren’t just catering to corporate supporters.
6) Vote for your interests, not the interests of the rich and powerful
The preamble of the constitution of the storied militant labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began with the following statement: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” There was much truth in the sentiment then, and there is much truth in it now. So when you, a working person, go to the polls, keep that statement in mind. Don’t vote for candidates who work in the interest of the real estate industry. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are pro-housing when they are really pro-commercial development. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are for “smart growth” when they are really for “letting real estate developers do whatever they want wherever they want” in the interest of fatter profits. Don’t vote for candidates who feign concern about global warming, then support policies that increase the number of cars on the road. Don’t vote for candidates who say “no new taxes”—when what they mean is “no new taxes on the rich.” Et cetera, et cetera.
Vote for candidates who talk about shifting the tax burden back on the rich and corporations. Get enough of those candidates into office to control local governments, and start doing just that. Raise property and commercial taxes. Increase the pathetically small payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that nominally nonprofit private colleges like Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University currently pay cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Then use the funds to bankroll an expansion of social programs that benefit working families. At the local level this would include—for example—building more social housing (a European term connoting public housing better than most American public housing), making public schools around the Commonwealth as good in poor towns are they are in rich ones, building more public health clinics, and rebuilding streets to favor public transportation, bikes, and pedestrians over cars.
But none of this can happen without working people getting more involved in our political process at the local level. So go forth, put some real effort into learning about the candidates for local office, and then get to the polls. Every time there’s a local election. Onward…
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.