Voters across the nation are heading to the polls to oust incumbent politicians, but many East Valley residents won’t have any challenger to choose from if they are in a throw-the-bums-out mindset.
Two of Mesa’s three council districts in this fall’s election have only the incumbent running. And in Chandler, the only option for mayor is a former mayor, Jay Tibshraeny.
The lack of challengers is a bit of a surprise to those who follow politics and even to those running for office.
Theories about the dearth of challengers vary, including the power of incumbency but also the recession’s deep impact.
“In this economy, people are really having to take care of their jobs and that might have a bigger factor than anything — how tough the economy is,” Tibshraeny said.
He points to the City Council race, which has six candidates running for three positions. In a better economy two years ago, eight people sought three seats.
“I think if the economy was running, we would have had one or two more people,” he said.
Tibshraeny is a state senator whose term ends in January. He was a former councilman and served as mayor from 1994 to 2002.
Mesa councilman Scott Somers is running unopposed for a second term and said city matters don’t elicit the emotional reactions that have triggered the current voter backlash in partisan races.
“My guess is when you look at the mood of the electorate, it is decidedly anti-incumbent, but a lot of that has to do with politics, and politics live particularly at the state and national level,” Somers said.
Councilwoman Dina Higgins also faces no challenger for a second term.
The sole Mesa race with competition is to replace Vice Mayor Kyle Jones, who is not running because of term limits. In that race, longtime activist Vic Linoff faces 24-year old Christopher Glover.
Linoff has moderated numerous candidate forums in Tempe since the 1980s and recalls one election with at least a dozen candidates for three council positions. Mesa has been known for rocky politics, but Linoff said the lack of candidates is a signal residents don’t feel a need to shake up City Hall.
“I think the city of Mesa has probably the strongest leadership it’s had in all the years that I’ve been here,” said Linoff, who moved to Mesa in 1967. “This is a City Council that I think, for the first time, knows where the end zone is. In all the years past, they’ve debated which end of the field they’re going to.”
Glover also is pleased with how Mesa is run and said he decided to run so have more members of his generation in politics. Glover said municipal politics appealed to him after serving internships in the U.S. Senate and at the Arizona Republican Party.
“I’ve seen how partisan that can get,” Glover said. “At the city level, the nice thing is it isn’t partisan,”
Linoff figures the nastiness of national politics could turn off people from any sort of political involvement. The recession also makes the job less rewarding because office-holders will have to make unpopular decisions to balance budgets, he said.
Linoff acknowledges a challenger will lead to more work for his campaign, but he said a community should have alternatives.
“I think the process is better served when you have a number of qualified candidates running because it forces a more broad-based discussion of issues and ideas,” Linoff said. “I think it challenges both incumbents and challengers to maybe be a little bit more thoughtful so that everybody realizes that elected office isn’t something that’s just a given.”
The low interest in local politics is a surprise to Tom Jenny, an activist and executive director of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers. While the organization advocates spending cuts, Jenny said he figured Chandler and Mesa officials would have been targeted politically after slicing millions from their budgets.
“You think some local opportunist from the other side would say, ‘Look at the incumbents. They’re cutting all these services. I wouldn’t do that,’” Jenny said.
Potential candidates are more fired up by moral and social issues that take place at higher levels of government and less concerned about municipal affairs, Jenny said. His organization has graded the fiscal conservatism of many elected officials to make it easier for challengers to have ammunition in their campaigns.
“I’d like for there to be more interest in the city council races,” Jenny said. “There’s a lot of substantive policy that happens at that level.”