While national politics tends to generate the most fervent discussion, nothing has more effect on your everyday life than the local brand of politics – from the decisions made at the State House that affect state law to the impacts that result from your local town and city council meetings.
While national politics maintains a reputation of being a pay-to-play kind of game that has long prevented everyday Americans from pursuing any interest in making a play for the political world, local politics is where you can seek to make a change within the most important community to you – your own.
This is why it is disheartening to read reports showing that one third of seats in the Rhode Island General Assembly will go forward through primary and election season this year without so much as a dark horse challenger. Incumbents will be able to literally sign their names, show up and get the job, without the need to sell people on their aspirations or values they will bring to the arena.
Fair, accurate elections are the backbone to any healthy democracy, and the ability for people to choose their representatives via a vote is the blood supply. We weaken the democratic process when we do not force a debate of ideas and values between two political challengers. Not doing so may breed apathy and complacency within that representative, which is a great recipe for bad government.
In Warwick’s case, two Representatives are going unchallenged this election season. One of those, K. Joseph Shekarchi, holds a leadership position. Regardless of whether or not you believe Shekarchi has dedicated the time necessary to perform dutifully as a public servant – and we believe he has – is besides the point. Shekarchi, and all candidates for office, should be continually challenged by the voters to prove why they deserve to continue representing their interests.
At the local level in Warwick, only three of nine seats on the City Council are contested, meaning that 66 percent of the current members on the council are guaranteed another two years as part of the highest legislative office the city offers simply by signing their names. We believe that more should be required of an aspiring candidate than merely volunteering for the position.
It is, of course, not the fault of unopposed representatives and municipal-level politicians that they do not face a challenger. However, it seems almost impossible that within districts comprising thousands of people – many of whom are at least politically active in the way of keeping up to date on current events and have plenty of opinions to provide online – there is not one other solitary person willing to step up and challenge an incumbent, even if they believe they don’t really have a good chance at winning.
We have already witnessed the potential power of grassroots campaigns led by unlikely candidates. In 2016, Bernie Sanders amassed a rabid following that narrowly lost in the primaries to political powerhouse Hillary Clinton, who was aided in no shortage of ways from the Democratic Party machine. Just this past month, Bronx-based political newcomer Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez beat Democratic incumbent and huge favorite Joseph Crowley, the chair of the Democratic Caucus.
These happenings do not appear to be outlying exceptions to the rule, rather they may be indicative of a new generation of voters coming of political age – a generation that pays attention to social media and is more concerned with ideals rather than how much money a politician can raise to run attack ads against their challengers. Such runs for office, even if not successful, are hugely beneficial to our democracy as a whole – they generate excitement about the process and force discussions.
If that hypothesis rings true and more people become involved in politics, then there should be a swath of new interest in local politics, as more people come to realize how much of an influence they can have on their local communities by simply standing up and becoming involved. As our current primary season indicates, it may be as simple as volunteering for the job to get a chance to show why you deserve it.