Tuesday’s primary election pales in comparison to the boisterous contests Tom Pizano remembers.
“There were very rarely races with no candidates years ago,” said Pizano, a former Luzerne County election office head and elected commissioner. “Things have really waned.”
While there are pockets of primary competition, this season’s ballots for many township supervisor and borough and city council seats have empty slots or only enough contenders to fill each party slate.
Municipalities have long scrambled to find people to run for judge of election and auditor ballot seats, but the candidate shortage is increasingly spilling into races for the municipal decision-makers who oversee budgets and staff, officials say.
Democrats in 13 municipalities and Republicans in 21 will encounter blank mayoral ballots because nobody is running, which means nominees might end up being chosen in write-in, a review of the ballots shows.
Mayoral candidates in 28 Luzerne County municipalities will coast through Tuesday’s primary without any competition from others in their party.
Civic engagement lacking
It’s not only a problem in Luzerne County, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. He has received several media calls about a lack of candidates in municipal races.
“It’s become more and more common in primaries,” said Madonna. “Part of the problem is what we call civic engagement — finding people who are willing to devote the time and energy serving in a public office with no pay or little pay.”
Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, said apathy about serving is becoming more common across the country. “Northeastern Pennsylvania has a very strong tradition of people running and serving in public office, so it’s a little disheartening that it’s also happening here,” he said.
The challenging decisions that must be made in cash-strapped municipalities are a driving factor in the candidate decline, say Pizano, Madonna and other political observers.
“Serving in local elected positions is a lot tougher because the decisions are tougher today,” said Pizano, pointing to state and federal funding cutbacks. “The money’s not there.”
Madonna points to municipal struggles over the funding of pensions, health care and police.
The challenge of solving these complex funding problems is scaring off many otherwise viable candidates, said King’s College political science professor David Sosar, who is running for Hazleton City Council. “Nobody wants to be on record raising property taxes and laying off police,” he said.
Pizano is convinced the Internet and other anonymous critique forums have turned off potential candidates. “People can put anything online,” he said. “The scrutiny is tougher today.”
Citizens who run for elected office put themselves and their families “out there in a way that’s never been seen before,” Brauer said.
“There was always little privacy for elected officials, but now there’s none,” he said. “Even if someone has something in their personal life that’s not that bad or illegal, they may not want it out there.”
Running for office is different than it was 50 or even 20 years ago, said Wilkes University political science professor Tom Baldino. “There is greater scrutiny. Suddenly your personal life is the subject of public debate,” he said. “It may be unrelated to the office a person is seeking but can now become part of that campaign.”
Public criticism is particularly worrisome if it could jeopardize a candidate’s full-time employment in the private sector, Sosar said.
The potential for citizen criticism at public meetings also is a factor, said Wilkes-Barre-based Democratic strategist Ed Mitchell. He cites the often lengthy county council meetings, which attract highly involved citizen activists, as an example. Five Democrats and six Republicans are running for five county council seats, which means only one Republican won’t make it past the primary.
“Who has the time to sit there for hours at night at these county meetings that go on forever and take abuse from a minority of people who attend these meetings?” said Mitchell. “Many people don’t want the headache. It’s not worth the grief.”
Too many municipalities
Pennsylvania has the second largest number of local governments in the nation, followed by Illinois, Brauer said. “We love our local government here, which means we have all these tiny jurisdictions and elected positions, so it’s very hard to find people to fill all of them,” he said.
Citizens from the minority party in each jurisdiction are less inclined to bother with the time and expense of getting on the primary ballot, Brauer said.
Madonna said, “A good many of our municipalities are pretty well dominated by one party, so that often serves as a detriment to people running.” The most common exception: municipalities that have a government scandal or other issue impacting many or all residents, such as a controversial development project.
“Otherwise,” he said, “the candidates from the dominant party usually win.”
There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for becoming an elected official today, Mitchell said.
“There’s a terrific funk right now in people toward government at all levels. They don’t think it works,” Mitchell said, adding that the corruption scandal involving county judges and other elected officials added to the local dissatisfaction.
Baldino observed a “general unhappiness with government in general.” “It just discourages anyone who wants to participate and devote their time to civic life,” he said. “Public office is not an inviting position anymore.”
The decline in primary competition is a concern, Mitchell said.
“Good government depends on good participation by citizens, and when you limit that participation, you end up with exactly the problems we experienced here,” he said.
Municipalities will end up with fewer people making decisions, Sosar said.
Primaries are supposed to be the venue for candidates from the same party to air their viewpoints, Madonna added. “It’s where different opinions on how to solve problems come into play,” he said.