Monday night the Associated Students of Madison sponsored a debate between the two candidates in the race for the District 5 seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. The fifth district is almost entirely made up of student residents. Appropriately, both candidates are students. The current supervisor for the district is Wyndham Manning, a Progressive Dane member who was a UW senior at the time of his election two years ago, and who many have criticized for being inactive and ineffective on the board.
Essentially, the race is a predictable reflection of UW campus politics. On one side is Analiese Eicher, the Democrat-endorsed candidate who is active in the College Dems organization and has worked on several Democratic campaigns. Running against her is Michael Johnson, the PD-endorsed candidate who ran the unsuccessful Council campaign for Katrina Flores last Spring. What is perhaps unusual is that Johnson sought the endorsement of the Dems and says that he considers himself a Democrat.
An interesting distinction between the candidates emerged as they responded to the first question of the debate, which asked them to identify their priorities on the County Board.
Johnson, soft-spoken and visibly nervous at first, said his first priority was affordable housing for students. He mentioned that he believed that the shortage of affordable housing pits students of color against white students and in-staters against out-of-staters. In addition, he described his commitment to protecting the environment, including the green spaces and lakes, where students "fish and sail" and from which they drink water.
Eicher, however, immediately began by mentioning Halloween and the Mifflin Block Party, and said that students need somebody who will work with the Sheriff's Dept to strike a balance between fun and safety. She then went on to mention other issues housing, RTA, the lakes. The first point was very politically savvy, as that is one issue that will stick out to otherwise disinterested students in the papers tomorrow.
OK, said the moderator. You guys are big fans of the environment and all this other good stuff, but what specific policies to do you have in mind? (Very loose paraphrase)
Eicher said the county should apply for a federal Clean Water Act grant to fund lake clean-ups, as well as grants for manure digesters. And hey, if we look into a policy to turn food waste into energy, we could get $4 million back to the county and create 45 jobs!
On this front Johnson made a bolder proposal. To fund an affordable housing trust, he suggested levying a $10 tax on parties involved in a real estate sale. Any real estate tycoons know if this would add up to $10 million?
Similarly, only Johnson was willing to say he supported a small sales tax increase to fund the RTA. While Eicher did not say she opposed the tax, she twice dodged the question by saying she hoped the RTA would find other ways to finance the project, such as federal grants. Johnson shot back, saying that local governments cannot be reliant on the feds or the state, both of whom are always looking for ways to cut funding to localities.
I was amused to see the moderator bring up the issue of non-binding resolutions. Student papers have often criticized left wing board members for wasting time with resolutions relating to national or international issues (impeaching the president, opposing Israel). Eicher took the cue and said she opposed non-binding resolutions, while Johnson said that sometimes good representatives should take the time to express a position of their constituents, and added that they shouldn't take much time.
When asked what local figures they look up to, Eicher mentioned former Ald. Eli Judge (Dist 8), and said she wished to model her outreach to students after his, including holding "office hours" once a week in a public spot. Johnson said that he looked up to former Ald. Austin King, and even claimed that the 8th district seat is sometimes referred to as the "Austin King" seat. He also mentioned Mike Verveer, which was definitely a good way to appeal to students who aren't active leftists. Verveer is the most visible city official to many students and he looks after issues that almost all of them identify with, such as alcohol licenses and bar raids.
The character of their campaigns was perhaps best demonstrated by their response to the following question: "Why would you be better than your opponent?" Johnson, in so many words, said that Eicher had done good work for the Democratic Party, but that she had no experience dealing directly with local issues. Eicher said she was running "not as an activist, but as a student." That was a subtle but strong message that will resonate with many students who feel alienated by the community of various left wing groups that are always in the news.
Both candidates did a fairly good job at presenting themselves. Johnson started out weak and seemingly intimidated, but he soon upped his voice and confidently articulated some policy goals. Eicher was better-rehearsed and understood how to relate each of her positions to students. If this were a fall election, I would put Eicher as the favorite hands-down. But because there will likely be very low turnout, I think Johnson may benefit from the support of a very dedicated and locally engaged campus left who will turn out on election day. It will be interesting to see if the College Dems and Dane Dems put the necessary energy into getting people to the polls.