The Universal Notebook: All (non-partisan) politics are local

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Since the sore sports who lost the Taxpayer Bill of Rights referendums managed to saddle Maine cities and towns with a budget validation process that gives budget-cutters a second bite at the apple, town meetings haven’t been quite the same.

Used to be that we voted on Election Day and then went to Town Meeting after the polls closed to transact our yearly municipal business and await the local election results. Now we hold Town Meeting a week ahead of time so we can validate the school budget on Election Day. The whole thing strikes me as anti-climactic at best, an affront to direct democracy at worst.

Around here, local elections are all about passing and protecting school budgets. Back in 1995, when a prominent gentleman ran for School Committee promising to reduce the school budget, I was recruited to oppose him. I ran on a promise to increase the school budget, which we did all six years I was in office, and improve school facilities, which we did with the help of a $20 million school facilities bond that passed the day I left office. I then served on the facilities committee that oversaw the construction of a new primary school and the total renovation of the high school.

That’s right, I’m a tax-and-spend Democrat and darn proud of it, thank you very much. But truth be told, local politics are usually not partisan matters at all. The woman who chaired the School Committee and led the school bond issue campaign was and is a conservative Republican. Our kids went to the same schools and played on the same teams and we supported them. I didn’t even realize she was so conservative until years later.

With the absence of party labels in local elections, you have to work a little harder to figure out for whom to vote. There are candidates nights and candidate profiles in the newspapers, of course, but just about everyone speaks in the same political platitudes, promising to be fiscally responsible while preserving whatever it is that’s so great about the town and the schools. Unless there is some controversy brewing or a divisive issue facing the electorate, critics need not apply.

If you want to meet the candidates, for School Board, Town Council or state Legislature, try the dump on Saturday morning. Everyone shows up there sooner or later. Local candidates help unload trash and shake hands around the hopper. Not all that sanitary perhaps, but downright neighborly.

If you don’t know a local candidate or where he/she stands, the most efficient way to find out about them is to just ask a friend. Then, too, whose lawns a candidate’s signs are on and who signs their endorsement ads generally tells you everything you need to know.

“If Buckminster and Barbie like him, that’s good enough for me.”

“I’m not voting for anyone the Nutellas support.”

The only real problem with the unaffiliated nature of local elections is that, without a party to field a candidate, we sometimes wind up with people running unopposed or, as this year, having too many good candidates to choose from.

Do be sure to vote on June 14 and, if you don’t see any candidates that excite you, consider running yourself next time.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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