Wednesday, July 18, 2012

SPECIAL ELECTION: Jarrett Smith Wins Takoma Park City Council Seat // BACKDROP: Diversity, Endorsements & More

A COMPETITVE CITY COUNCIL ELECTION IN TAKOMA PARK YESTERDAY: For those of you who pay attention to Montgomery County municipal politics, we now have the results of a new election to present. Voters yesterday cast ballots to fill a vacancy on the six-member Takoma Park City Council. Last Spring, The Gazette's Aaron Kraut reported that Ward 5 Councilmember Reuben Snipper was resigning his seat to move to Italy with his wife:

GAZETTE: Reuben Snipper, who worked to protect tenants’ rights and upgrade Flower Avenue during his five years as Ward 5’s representative on the Takoma Park City Council, has announced that he will resign in May. 
Snipper is moving to Italy with his wife, Cheryl Morden, who recently accepted a job at the headquarters of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome.  
There were three candidates running for the Ward 5 seat previously held by Councilmember Reuben Snipper: 1) Eric Hensal, a public relations consultant, 2) Jarrett Smith, a real estate broker, and 3) Melinda Ulloa, a broadcast media consultant.

JARRETT SMITH WINS ELECTION BY 17 VOTES: Jarrett Smith won yesterday's special election by 17 votes and will become the next City Councilmember for Ward 5. See the unofficial results below:

Takoma Park Councilmember-Elect Jarrett Smith

EXPLANATION OF TAKOMA PARK'S "INSTANT RUNOFF" RESULTS: Notably, Takoma Park conducts a series of "runoff"-style elections to eliminate candidates before settling on an ultimate victor (aka "instant runoff voting" - click for more info). They do so by asking voters to rank the candidates and later using the rankings to gauge voters' preferences when candidates are eliminated. The system is intended to reduce the "spoiler" problem in elections and create majority-supported winners.

In the first runoff round last night, the voters' first choices were counted and Melinda Ulloa was in last place. She was then eliminated from the race and her ballots were instead counted for her supporters' second choices. After this second round of counting, Jarrett Smith proved victorious with 97 votes (this total includes the votes he received from Melinda Ulloa's supporters). The Takoma Park Patch's Ryan McDermott reported on details from the instant runoff count (excerpt below):
TAKOMA PARK PATCH: Smith took 97 votes and Eric Hensel was close behind with 80 votes. The election was done by instant runoff so the third candidate, Melinda Ulloa, did not receive any votes in the final tally, although she received 33 before she was eliminated. Only 76 people turned out for Ward 5 uncontested race in 2011 when Reuben Snipper was elected....

COMPETITIVE CAMPAIGNING INCREASED VOTER TURNOUT: Turnout more than doubled from the previous Ward 5 election, when Reuben Snipper won his seat. But the race this year was particularly competitive, as Jarrett Smith and Eric Hensal sent out mailers, canvassed, and sought endorsements. Hensal, for example, received the backing of the AFL-CIO Metro Washington Council.

In 2007, Eric Hensal came in 2nd place behind Reuben Snipper for the Ward 5 seat. Hensal also previously worked for former Montgomery County Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg and Delegate Ben Kramer. Meanwhile, Jarrett Smith received the backing of County Councilmembers Valerie Ervin, Nancy Navarro and Hans Riemer, along with local activists like Hank Prensky and Keith Berner:

The Gazette had predicted that the turnout yesterday might be higher than in the last election. Last week, they noted the increased interest in the Ward 5 race (excerpt below):
GAZETTE: Just 76 people voted in last fall's Ward 5 city council election....
A lively three-person debate on Thursday, ahead of Tuesday's special election to replace former Councilman Reuben Snipper, signaled that might be changing. About 50 residents packed a room at Washington Adventist University to hear candidates talk about the future of the Washington Adventist Hospital site, how to engage renters in city politics, how to support under-developed commercial areas and a host of other issues....

THE ISSUE OF RACE IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY: Some might see Jarrett Smith's victory as a sign of progress in the context of Montgomery County's often weak representation of people of color, given that the County is now roughly majority-"minority." Notably, former MoCo Democratic Chair Karen Britto recently launched an effort to help reverse the trend. We reported last March that she hosted a summit of political activists and officials to work toward a more diverse political delegation in 2014. See a press release excerpt below:
KAREN BRITTO: We cannot wait 10 more years for the political establishment to acknowledge our many decades of unwavering support of the Democratic Party.  Therefore, we believe that the time has come for us to channel our various community resources to seek and support candidates of color who aspire to political office in 2014 and beyond. 

As a new, broad coalition of progressive Democratic community leaders, representing the New Majority in Montgomery County, we plan to bring our collective power together to create real opportunities for candidates of color to seek to gain political office.  We believe we can begin the process of creating a more diverse and representative Montgomery County for the future.

GAZETTE ARTICLE TRIGGERS DEBATE ABOUT RACE & REPRESENTATION IN MOCO: In fact, just days before Takoma Park's special election, The Gazette published a long story highlighting the noticeable lack of people of color occupying MoCo's city council seats and mayor's offices. Their article generated a lot of interest from MoCo politicos with whom I spoke. The piece, by staff writers Aaron Kraut and Alex Ruoff, discussed the fascinating intersection of race and politics in Takoma Park (excerpt below):
GAZETTE: All six members of Takoma Park's City Council are white, even though most of the city's 17,000 residents are people of color....

In Gaithersburg and Rockville, Montgomery County's two other sizeable municipalities, significant populations of black, Hispanic and Asian residents also are represented by councils made up almost entirely of white elected officials....

Jarrett Smith thinks people too often view him solely as “the black candidate...." Smith is targeting every potential vote in what traditionally is the ward with the lowest voter turnout.... But Smith also recognizes the effect race can have.... “Everybody needs to know that there is a representative on the council that can assist them. Everybody should feel that they have access....”

“I'm kind of embarrassed to live in Takoma Park as I believe in voting rights and representation, and we have an all-white council,” said [FairVote executive director Rob Richie], who is white. “It's an uncomfortable topic to some. It's rarely talked about but it's a conversation we need to start having quickly....”

TAKOMA COUNCILMEMBER CALLS OUT GAZETTE FOR "RED-LINING" POOR NEIGHBORHOODS FOR NON-DELIVERY: The Gazette reporters noted above published significantly more commentary than what I highlighted above, so I encourage you to read the full article (read the full piece online). Their dialogue sparked a response from Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes, who predicted a victory by Jarrett Smith. Grimes added gender and sexual orientation to the discussion about diversity in public office and noted the role that various boards and groups can play in facilitating those who later seek elected office. He also calls out The Gazette newspaper for what he perceives as hypocrisy. He notes that the publication doesn't deliver its paper to some of the poorer neighborhoods in Takoma Park: See an excerpt from his blog piece below:
TAKOMA PARK COUNCILMEMBER SETH GRIMES: The Montgomery County Gazette reported, in the June 27, 2012 article "Filling the minority void in municipal government," on the noticeable lack of minority representation on the Takoma Park City Council. The article was fair and timely but missed important nuance....

The community is aware of the council-diversity challenge. The situation is actually both better and worse than the Gazette described. The council has long had one or two gay or lesbian members -- Mayor Bruce Williams, who joined the council in 1993, is Maryland's first openly gay elected official -- and I project that Ward 5 will elect Jarrett Smith to the council on July 17 (for reasons other than his race, as I'll explain below), changing the council's racial make-up. Yet the distribution of councilmember ages is skewed (which doesn't worry me so much) and only one of the current six is a woman (which is definitely worrisome).

We can and will redress the imbalance, but not solely by focusing on council representation. We need to encourage broad engagement and inclusion, in lower levels of city government and also in non-governmental neighborhood activities and interactions. After all, engaged neighbors enrich the community, and they become community leaders and then council candidates, as local experience shows....

Not incidentally, the candidate likely to win the up-coming race for the vacant Ward 5 council seat, Jarrett Smith, has served ten years on the city's Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs, six as chair, and also served on the city's Washington Adventist Hospital Land-Use Committee. His rivals have no record of city service, and that's the primary reason, I believe, Jarrett will win on July 17....

But one more point: Getting information out helps. The thought that an informed public is essential to democracy dates to James Madison, if not earlier. The Takoma Park city newsletter is mailed to all residents, and all city wards have neighborhood e-mail lists, even if some are more active than others.

The Gazette newspaper, however, redlines two of the city's wards.

The Gazette doesn't deliver to the New Hampshire Gardens neighborhood or the apartment buildings on New Hampshire Avenue, in the Takoma-Langley Crossroads area, in Ward 6, nor to the neighborhoods bounded by Flower Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway in Ward 5. These are heavily minority neighborhoods. City council members and local activists will do what we can to spur minority inclusion and representation. I'd like to see the Gazette's non-delivery policy, which discriminates against an underrepresented segment of the population, change as well.

The Washington Post's Victor Zapana recently placed these changes in a slightly broader context in a fascinating article titled: "A “post-hippie” Takoma Park?" (see excerpt below):
WASHINGTON POST: It’s taken four decades, but Takoma Park may have finally started to leave the ’60s. After years of flagging interest, the city recently killed its Free Burma Committee. Last month, it made a rare exception to its “nuclear-free zone” ordinance. The city’s corn silo still stands, and Takoma Park still refuses to buy bottled water, but the community tool library is gone, and many of the activists who once defined what has long been called the People’s Republic of Takoma Park are getting older.

In many ways, it is no longer the Takoma Park of decades past, when free spirits flocked to the city, opened head shops and stood in front of bulldozers to prevent encroaching development. There’s a growing sense that its countercultural verve is changing into something else — something still progressive but less showy and ideological....

The timing of all of this interests me personally, as I will soon be a citizen of "The People's Republic of Takoma Park." Sometime next month I'll be re-planting myself in the area, and it seems like I am returning at an interesting time:

It seems the conversation about representation in Montgomery County may just be beginning. Stay tuned!

Full Disclosure: While working at Takoma Park-based Fairvote, I previously helped with the city's "instant runoff voting" ballot measure. I also helped produce the Councilmembers' mail piece in this article.

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