Current and former Longview City Council candidates say the campaign season has become increasingly partisan this year, with political parties and endorsements playing a larger role than in the past and candidates seemingly falling into one of two political camps.
Mayor Don Jensen, who has been on the council for two decades and is up for re-election this year, said City Council positions have never been truly nonpartisan, despite being legally established that way.
“It’s really supposed to be somewhat independent when you’re running for a nonpartisan office,” he said Monday. “It’s never been that way, and probably never will be, but I’ve never seen it this (partisan) before.”
During the primary, the Cowlitz County Republican Party endorsed incumbents Jensen and Scott Vydra, along with Spencer Boudreau, who is running for an open seat. (Incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Mike Wallin had only one challenger and did not need to compete in the primary, but he has supported Jensen and Vydra for re-election.)
The Cowlitz County Democratic Central Committee has endorsed challengers Ruth Kendall, Hillary Strobel and John Melink, along with Christine Schott, who is running against Boudreau for the open seat.
Schott, who calls herself a centrist, said she asked for an endorsement from both the local Democrats and Republicans because she maintains that she doesn’t fit perfectly into either camp.
“I don’t understand the political world and where we are right now,” she said Monday. “Everybody seems to be picking sides. That’s a struggle for me because I don’t have a side.”
While the council positions are legally required to be nonpartisan, there is some debate about whether that is a good thing. Proponents of nonpartisan ballots say political parties aren’t relevant to city business, and council members are more likely to cooperate if they don’t have party designations, according to the National League of Cities.
However, proponents of partisan positions say voters may become confused about a candidate’s policy beliefs when they don’t have party affiliations, and nonpartisan elections favor candidates from higher classes because there aren’t party systems urging lower-class citizens to vote.
Many of the nation’s largest city councils are legally nonpartisan, according to the NLC.
Longview City Council positions are technically nonpartisan, but Jensen and former Mayor Mark McCrady said many candidates in the past have had party affiliations. “It’s just more visible now,” McCrady said last week.
When he was on the council from 1994 to 2005, McCrady said he was associated with the Democratic party due to his labor background. Other Longview City Council members around that time also had clear party ties: Hal Palmer and former mayors Dennis Weber and Ramona Leber were prominent Republicans; former mayors Karen Bergquist and George Raiter were prominent Democrats.
The way candidates and their supporters campaign, however, has brought political leanings to the forefront, McCrady said. They can use social media to promote their positions without restriction or vetting, he said.
“When I was serving, the only way, without buying an ad, to communicate to the public about your political position was with a letter to the editor. These letters were vetted and rejected if profane or violated any of the paper’s policies,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s better or worse than when I served, but it is different.” (TDN policy bars candidates from writing on their own behalf, but supporters can.)
Jensen said supporters from both sides of the political spectrum have been more “mean-hearted” this year than ever before during his 20-year tenure on the council. He was particularly bothered by accusations that the three incumbents may form a voting bloc because they are mailing joint campaign flyers. Jensen argued that the council has diverse opinions but finds compromises during workshops.
“It just seems like everybody is at each other’s throats,” he said. He added later, “There’s always a little mudslinging here and there. That’s part of the game. But I’ve never seen it the way it is now.”
Following the 2017 Longview City Council election, Jensen expressed a similar sentiment to The Daily News, saying, “Never in my career as a politician have I seen such nastiness.” Democratic-associated candidates Megan Richie and Amber Rosewood were especially vilified that year.
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Jensen said Monday that part of the problem is that local debate is increasingly tied to broader party philosophical stances. For example, he said it seemed like some of the Democratic-supported Longview candidates have come out against the proposed Pacific Coast Fertilizer plant because it goes against what he sees as a liberal goal of reducing reliance on industry rather than “what’s best for Longview.”
Schott said voters, herself included, are worried that a council made up entirely of members from one political party would then enforce policies that reflect that party’s philosophy. She said she’d rather see a mix of political leanings on the council.
Nationally, political activists have become more “adamant” about their beliefs, McCrady said, and that attitude can filter down to the local level.
“Assertive is a better word than polarized,” McCrady said. “I don’t think we are polarized locally. People just have different ideas about how to achieve the same goals.”
But political affiliations rarely come into play with city governance, he added.
“I don’t see a difference between a Democrat or Republican pothole,” McCrady said. “You can run based on the support of one group or the other. The issues once you get there are pretty nonpartisan.”
Former Mayor George Raiter agreed that political affiliations rarely impact city governance but said that campaigns for those offices are trending more partisan over the last decade. Part of the reason is that state parties are realizing they can groom promising local politicians to be future state legislators, Raiter said.
Ruth Kendall, a first time politician who is challenging Jensen, has said she first decided to run for elected office after volunteering for Democrat Carolyn Long’s 2018 campaign against Southwest Washington Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler.
While she has coordinated canvassing events with other Democratic-endorsed candidates, Kendall said they each are at different places on the political spectrum.
Council incumbent Scott Vydra, who faces challenger Hillary Strobel, said Tuesday that he doesn’t think voters will pick candidates based on party. He said he filled out every endorsement questionnaire he received, but he never got one from the Democrats.
However, Vydra said the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to get Democrats elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, seems to be getting involved in local races in order to ramp up support for Long in her bid to unseat Congresswoman Herrera Beutler next year.
For Schott, it feels like voters are frequently trying to put her into one of the two camps. Sometimes their first question for Schott is which party she’s with. Other times, she’s asked for her opinion on matters the City Council will rarely, if ever, grapple with: abortion and gun control, for example.
“I’ve tried to have conversations with people of one party or another but because of my own philosophy, they don’t want to have a conversation with me,” she said. “My philosophy doesn’t matter in this race because it’s not about me. But people don’t see it that way.”
Schott said she’s trying to campaign on her own, not as a slate with the other Democrat-endorsed candidates. She had her own booth at Squirrel Fest to show she is running independently, she said, but some Republicans accused her of “hiding out and not saying I was a Democrat.”
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” she said.
“I don’t see a difference between a Democrat or Republican pothole.” Former Longview mayor