It’s one of the most famous political cliches ever utttered: All politics is local.
But with American politics growing ever more partisan, it’s an aphorism whose standing sometimes feels shaky. Campaigns for non-federal offices increasingly feel more like extensions of the national political debate over President Donald Trump and nationally resonant issues such as immigration, guns, abortion and so on.
On Aug. 6, Kansans in some communities will vote in primaries that will determine which local candidates advance to the Nov. 5 general election (Note: For Wichitans, The Wichita Eagle has published primary voter guides for school board and mayor.) The races this summer and fall are officially nonpartisan, but increasingly carry a partisan tinge. While there’s nothing wrong with Democrats and Republicans battling it out for the loyalties of voters, it doesn’t serve communities well to have every race turn mostly on party loyalty. Local issues often don’t fit neatly into a partisan box.
Fortunately, Kansans still care a great deal about specific local issues – when they’re given a chance to talk about them. This past spring The Journal asked Kansas Leadership Center alumni to complete a survey about local election issues. More than 635 people responded. While the poll isn’t scientific, it does have journalistic value. It suggests that jobs and economic development, named by more than a quarter of those responding, are the state’s most resonant local issues, with taxes and spending coming in a distant second.
There are regional variations, of course. In burgeoning parts of northeast Kansas, such as Johnson County and Lawrence, housing costs have become a major concern. In places such as Hutchinson, Garden City and Dodge City, the ability to recruit and retain young people recurs as an issue. Urban centers such as Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas, are wrestling with how redevelopment efforts might be leaving some areas of their communities behind. In southeast Kansas, it’s not just taxes and the economy, but finding high-quality people to fill local government posts that are on people’s minds.
Despite their concerns, respondents place a great deal of trust in the city council members and school board members who represent them. More than 84% indicated they have at least some confidence in local government, far outpacing confidence levels for the U.S. presidency, Congress, the Kansas Legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court.
And even though local issues rarely generate provocative headlines, survey respondents certainly care enough about what’s going on to show up – nearly 85% said they planned to vote in the August primary and the Nov. 5 general election.
What readers told us in the survey will shape how The Journal goes about covering November’s local elections. Look for stories in the magazine’s October edition that will be designed to elevate local-level adaptive challenges.
As The Journal detailed a few years ago, as a voter you’ll never have more sway over an election outcome than when you cast a ballot in a local race. But to me, there’s a civic leadership element at play, too. Local elections should be events that prompt people in a community to engage in significant, thoughtful discussions about the futures they want for their communities.
To me, that’s just as important, if not more so, than the act of voting itself.
A version of this article will appear in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.