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Dormant Democracy: What, No Candidates? Even in Takoma Park?

In the annals of our long, depressing slide into dormant democracy, this is a story I would not have predicted. Even in hyper-political Takoma Park--the lefty enclave in suburban Maryland that dives merrily into almost every divisive issue to come down the pike--they're holding an election this fall and hardly anybody bothered to run against the incumbents.

When the deadline for filing to run for mayor or city council passed, only one person in the entire town of 17,000 souls stepped forward to mount a challenge. The mayor and five of the six ward council members will be elected in uncontested votes.

I've had a bee in my bonnet for some years now about the growing problem of voters having no choice in congressional and local elections (a piece I wrote about the about the time when 18 or Florida's 23 members of Congress won reelection with no opposition is on the jump.)

This has been a problem in many parts of the country, and especially in Virginia's legislature, where, two years ago, 50 of the 100 House of Delegates seats were filled in uncontested elections.

But I wouldn't have expected to see dormant democracy becoming a problem in Takoma Park, where the desire to take strong stands is somehow infused in the water. After all, this is the town that famously declared itself a nuclear-free zone many years ago and has regularly found other ways to confront the rest of the nation with its political messages. Most recently, this summer, the city council voted unanimously to support impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney. This is a place where, if I'm counting correctly, there are more political blogs and papers per square foot than any other spot in Maryland. (It also sports one of the most-aptly named political blogs in the region: Granola Park.)

So, why the dormancy? Is it because Takoma Park residents are thrilled beyond words with their representatives? True, crime is down 10 percent. And there are some excellent people on the council.

But there's no shortage of local controversies; Takoma residents are divided on the Inter-County Connector, Silver Spring development, the future and possible path of Metro's Purple Line, whether proposed development around the Takoma Metro station is too car-oriented or too dense, and smaller stuff, too, such as cost overruns on a community center project.

An irony here involves Takoma Park's decision to become the first jurisdiction in the Washington area to adopt instant runoff voting, a system in which voters don't just choose a winner, but instead rank candidates so that their second and third choices can be counted if no candidate wins a majority of votes. But when the system was first used in a special election earlier this year, the instant runoff option didn't kick in because the winner won a majority. This fall, again, the newfangled system will lie dormant--runoffs can only happen if there are three or more candidates for a position.

The only contested race in next week's election pits Bridget Bowers against Dan Robinson for the one open seat on the council (Ward 3 council member Bruce Williams will move up to mayor, unopposed.) In a classic case of Takoma Park comity, the opponents are jointly sponsoring a listserv where residents can discuss the campaign.

Such admirable cooperation. Now, how about a little competition?

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer

Pg. A01, Oct. 27, 1998

HOLLYWOOD, Fla.--Red, white and blue bunting ripples in the sultry tropical wind. Police honor guards stand tall as a high school marching band pulses by. Searchlights ply the night sky. Energetic young women move through the crowd handing out fliers.

The setting, just days before the election, is perfect for an old-fashioned political rally. But despite fireworks, speeches, a couple of thousand citizens and TV cameras galore, not a single candidate is here.

These Floridians have come out on this misty weeknight to celebrate a 99-day countdown until South Florida plays host to football's Super Bowl. And they describe their priorities with perfect clarity: "The Super Bowl only comes maybe a couple of times in your life," said Ana Suarez, 26, an office assistant. "They always have elections."

Actually, when it comes to Congress, they don't. This year, 18 of Florida's 23 House members face no major party opponent. Fourteen of the incumbents won't even appear on the ballot because they were declared winners when no one -- not even minor party challengers -- bothered to run against them.

Across the nation, nearly 100 members of Congress have won a free ticket back to Washington this year -- more than in any election since 1958 and five times as many as in 1996. But nowhere has the Soviet-style, single-candidate phenomenon taken root as firmly as in Florida, where only one House seat is considered competitive, that of Rep. Corrine Brown (D). What's going on here? Does anyone care?

A 300-mile journey through seven Florida districts with no congressional race this fall finds a government and its citizens in disconnect: people who don't know who their representative is, but like the job he's doing; people who don't like their representative, but are in no hurry to toss the lawmaker out; and, more than anything else, people who just don't see why they should pay attention to any of that stuff.

"Q" is a spanking new glass-and-steel sports club in Plantation, one of the suburbs that stretch west from the old cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood into what was once the Everglades. It's an affluent area, with sprawling red-roofed houses and educated, professional residents. In many parts of the country, this is the kind of place politicians flock to, looking to maximize their harvest of people who almost certainly vote.

But this is South Florida, where most people are from somewhere else, where entire suburbs are built at a rate of about one every season. Some local elections have drawn barely 10 percent of registered voters in recent years.

Ask 60 people here who their representative is, and don't be shocked when just seven know the answer. "I have no idea," said Betsy Sheehy, 33, a stylist for movie productions. "The only congressman I'm familiar with is Connie Morella," the Maryland Republican. "I'm from Bethesda. Back home, everybody knows that kind of stuff. But down here, people just aren't into it."

"Q" teems with young professionals on a weekday afternoon; one TV is tuned to the breaking news of a Middle East peace agreement, but 11 others -- the ones people are watching -- are fixed on Roseanne's talk show. Sheehy is stretching with her friend Lisa Keene, a nursing student whose statistics professor last week asked his class to identify their House member. Of the 30 students, two got it right. Keene was not one of them.

"My professor said it was really sad," she said, "and I guess he's right. But I don't follow politics. I don't have to."

Sheehy and Keene had no idea that Peter Deutsch is their congressman; they also did not know that no one is opposing Deutsch this fall. "That's scary," Keene said. "That breaks my heart," Sheehy added. Then she laughed. "Well, not really."

Deutsch isn't exactly broken up about it either. "We have a permanent incumbency in America now," said the third-term Democrat. "I'm as much a beneficiary of it as anyone else, but it is anti-democratic. The reality of American politics is there's a threshold amount of money you need without which you can't win." And Deutsch's war chest of more than $ 1.5 million scared off any challenger.

In Deutsch's suburban district, "There is no center, no place to go to talk to people," the congressman said. "There's no downtown, no coherent community. Florida may be the cutting edge of that phenomenon, but that's what America is increasingly looking like." The only way to garner attention in such an environment is television, and in a populous place like South Florida, that means $ 1.5 million in campaign TV time and production costs.

Even then, the ads don't necessarily break through. At Hollywood Christian School, several hundred people turn out for a mid-afternoon football game. People will leave work early to support their children, but they don't see why they should show that kind of commitment to politics.

"With kids and work, I'm trying to make a living," said lithographer Tony Lopez, 44. "I don't have time for politicians talking trash about each other. I'm breaking my back to send my kids to private school so they can get away from that kind of stuff."

"Realistically, it's just not possible to beat an incumbent," said Beverly Kennedy, a Fort Lauderdale financial adviser and radio talk show host. Kennedy knows. The Republican has tried three times, never hitting 40 percent in her challenges against Deutsch and Rep. Robert Wexler, who represents parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties. This year, Kennedy decided to stop beating her head against the wall. She hopes instead that Jeb Bush will be elected governor and appoint her to a nice job in the state capital.

"Unfortunately, we have a very ignorant public," Kennedy said. "Maybe 30 percent of people try to keep up with what's going on. We've had some really good people run, but it doesn't matter. They'll all be reelected perpetually."

A Democrat who tested the waters this year is John Rayson, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and state legislator who decided against challenging Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R), who is sailing into his 10th term uncontested.

"On paper, it looks winnable," Rayson said, noting that Shaw's district, unlike most in Florida, is almost evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. "But people are pretty satisfied with the way things are. Taxes haven't been much of an issue, crime is down. The way the media emphasizes the salacious aspects of politics, people don't believe a word you say. The money, the mistrust, the long-term unchallenged incumbents -- it all contributes to a decay of the democratic process. My daughter would say, 'It stinks, don't go there.' "

So Rayson didn't. He plans to wait "until Shaw is older, loses some energy."

If political lethargy rules the day in the younger, newer parts of South Florida, the region's older communities retain a reputation for activism of New Deal ferocity. The hundreds of thousands of retirees who flock here still vote, still come out to hear elected officials.

At Century Village in Deerfield Beach, the sign on Amadeo Trinchitella's office door says, "Recreation Committee Chairman Trinchi." But the 80-year-old ex-restaurateur from the Bronx runs far more than the swimming pools and mah-jongg tables. Trinchi is the boss of Century Village, and he delivers.

Trinchi, a gravel-voiced, balding man, uses a walker now, but after 18 years at Century Village, he wields nearly absolute political power. He pulls out computer printouts to prove his point: Century Village votes monolithically -- 96 percent for one Democrat, 97 for another.

"Fifteen thousand people in this development, with all the amenities, card games, 14 heated pools, classes," Trinchi explained. "They come down here, they have no work, so they withdraw. They don't have to pay attention to politics, because Trinchi and a few other people do it for them, so they can withdraw and enjoy life."

Next weekend, Trinchi will stage a rally for Democrat Buddy MacKay in the hot governor's race against Bush -- but he knows the only thing that still drives his voters is nostalgia. "We play the old songs, the ones they grew up on, we remind them about the Depression and that gets them thinking about Social Security," he said. "It works. I try to get my sons interested in politics -- forget it. Different generation, different interests."

At Century Village's medical clinic, president Barry Chapnick, 51, says the responsibility for the lack of choice on the ballot lies with his generation and its indifference to politics. "My father never cared about making money," Chapnick said. "He was happy with what he had because he knew things could be a lot worse. So his generation looked to politics as the way to make sure things didn't get worse again. I never had it bad, so people in my generation always want more, and the way to get more was through business, not politics."

In recent years, the main path to that younger, less involved generation has been identity politics, and the 1992 redistricting of Florida was designed to permit both parties to take advantage of ethnic block voting. The resulting map, a jumble of contorted shapes, included three majority-black districts and two majority-Hispanic districts, as well as majority-white districts that took on bizarre boundaries to ensure that one party or the other would be the heavy favorite.

"It's unbelievable," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the Cuban-born ex-schoolteacher whose district is more than two-thirds Hispanic. "I represent the white part of Coconut Grove," a neighborhood of Miami, "but the few blocks of the Grove that are black, I don't represent. They carved out the black neighborhoods and gave them to" Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D), who is black.

Ros-Lehtinen is unhappy with racial gerrymandering, but defends another type of collusion that political analysts say contributes to Florida's dormant congressional races. Despite political differences, many Florida House members work closely together and don't encourage members of their party to challenge incumbents.

"We're all together on that flight every week," Ros-Lehtinen said of her colleagues. "We do events together, regardless of party. Our constituents don't see us bickering and fighting and that helps all of us politically."

"It's an unspoken conspiracy by both parties to protect their incumbents," said Jim Kane, editor of the nonpartisan Florida Voter magazine. "It's wrong, and it feeds this phenomenal public complacency."

At the Little Havana Activities Center in Miami, many elderly Cubans who spend their morning dancing to songs of their island childhood are not eager for anyone to challenge Ros-Lehtinen. As long as she speaks to them in their native language and promises to keep fighting Fidel Castro, they are satisfied.

But Juan Francisco Carvajal, the 62-year-old crooner in the dance band, laments the lack of competition. "Otherwise, how are we different from Cuba, where the only choice is Fidel?" he said. "But I understand why they don't run. No use running against someone certain to win."

"I'm not looking for challengers," Ros-Lehtinen said. "If people are happy with me, what's wrong with that?" This is Ros-Lehtinen's third consecutive non-election, but she still raises money ("A million dollars keeps people out, which is, of course, our intention"). Laughing, she added, "Unless that picture of me kissing Castro comes out, I think I'm pretty safe."

Juan Francisco Carvajal, a crooner who entertains in Miami, laments the lack of electoral competition and compares it to Cuba. "With kids and work, I'm trying to make a living," said Tony Lopez, attending a school football game in Hollywood, Fla. "I don't have time for politicians talking trash about each other."

By Marc Fisher |  October 30, 2007; 6:54 AM ET
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Comments

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Perhaps it's because newer residents, although cognizant of TP's political identity, are still trying to get their feet wet. If this continues, then I'd be worried for TP (and for the democratic ideal there).

Posted by: Dan | October 30, 2007 7:40 AM

A) perhaps they're satisfied that the current board is far enough left as it is.

B) Maybe the newer residents moved there because the board is leftist.

C) they feel that they can rise up and riot or strike or whatever lefties do when they are aggreived if the baord strays toward the center.

Posted by: Stick | October 30, 2007 8:14 AM

Isnt this the way things worked in the good ole Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall fell? Works that way now in Cuba and Venezuela. Takoma Park is just following the wishes of the politcal commisars and apertniks etc. Wouldnt be surprised to find Chavez and Castro funding the incumbetbets in Takoma Park. But if that is what the residents of Takoma Park want so be it a nice little workers paradise haven in a capitlaist world. Have the erected statues to their revolutionary heroes yet Che, Lenin, Marx and Fidel?

And remember Marc to fart often to offset the carbon offests TP residents buy!

Posted by: Communism rules in TP | October 30, 2007 8:17 AM

There haven't been serious races where all the council seats and Mayors office were contested in T.P for years. I've been there since 1972. Rockville and Gaithersburg have vibrant contests.

As a result the City erected a City Hall that is FUBAR. It was over budget, and didn't give people the one thing (a gym) that was promised. The building is still not finished. And none of the council people paid a price, by being evicted from office.

Perhaps it is time for the city to turn in its charter, and save its residents from the burden of dual taxation. All of its services are also provided for by the county, and this duplication of effort is wasteful. Its council has become little more than an over priced civics club, unfettered, at great cost to the property owners and residents..

What would they do with the $2000 in property tax savings? It is their money.

Posted by: Lawrence | October 30, 2007 8:22 AM

Every time I cross Eastern Avenue to go the farmer's market I say, "You are now entering the Peoples' Republic of Takoma Park". I know it's not super-relevant to the story, but I just wanted to share.

Posted by: DC Guy | October 30, 2007 9:17 AM

For what it's worth, with property values what they are in Takoma Park, the character is changing rapidly. As a former Takoma Park renter who bought in DC because TKPK was too pricey, I was quite aware that many of the traditional Takoma Park base were moving to Hyattsville.

Posted by: DC Gal | October 30, 2007 9:21 AM

I became politically aware of local issues in my neighborhood and planned to run for ANC until I learned that it would:
1. Make me the target for disgruntled idiots
2. Take me away from my kids for hours a week
3. There were no pluses, there were only negatives

Posted by: DCer | October 30, 2007 10:15 AM

Tacoma Park Votes!
Critical Issues Abound!
Noone really cares.

Posted by: Tacoma Haiku | October 30, 2007 10:27 AM

Marc, your article is somewhat dated. Apparently, the Gingrich-Delay tactics had not yet taken effect, but I doubt if Florida' Congression delegation is so chummy any more. Hyper Partisanship rules this day. Should we wish to return to good old days your article describes?

Posted by: A Hardwick | October 30, 2007 11:51 AM

Maybe nobody wants to run for office because they're afraid they'll be called a coward if they act contrary to the opinion of a hypocritical, know-it-all Post columnist who's afraid to actually engage in public either the elected official or his readers about the issue. Because, after all, it's the columnist's beliefs that matter, and not the public's that elected the official, or even the laws that the official has sworn to uphold.

Posted by: AlvinT | October 30, 2007 12:04 PM

It's not much different in the People's Republic of Arlington. The democratic political machine is so firmly entrenched that it is hard to get anyone to run against the chosen machine candidate, as they are sure to lose. Fortunately, in Virginia we have the Dillon Rule, which at least limits the damage that the Commissars that run Arlington can do. But they still manage to spend money like it's going out of style.

Posted by: Al | October 30, 2007 1:35 PM

Every time I think about voting Democratic, I read about TP. That cures me immediately. But I am glad so many with the same mind set moved there to live. It spares the rest of us from having to deal with them.

Posted by: Free From Them | October 30, 2007 9:29 PM

I actually go to Takoma Park to do most of my farting, to increase the town's greenhouse gas emissions. "Beans in Silver Spring, farts in TP," that's my motto.

Why bother having opposition candidates when everyone agrees?

Posted by: Lindemann | October 31, 2007 9:20 AM

If anyone thinks Takoma Park people agree then they know no one in Takoma Park. There is a HUGE if not MONSTROUS generation gap in that place between older residents who bought property cheaply in the 1970s and people like me who they call "yuppies." Trust me, the retirees in Takoma Park with their banjos and flutes and homemade vests are the current power structure, but the kids will have their say.

Posted by: DCer | October 31, 2007 12:29 PM

i dont really like this article!

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