Local politics still key to lives of residents

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Reflections from my Notebook

Last Thursday, Oct. 11, may just be a sign of an ongoing shift in local politics — not in a partisan way, but in the thought process of voters.

There were two political events — a forum in Spring Valley for candidates in Fillmore County’s two contested races and a rally in Rochester for Republican candidates featuring President Donald Trump. Of course, the two aren’t equal as the local forum had a limited audience and the rally drew thousands of people, several from long distances. Still, the perspectives of the events were telling.

The Spring Valley forum drew about 50 people, just slightly fewer than a similar forum in Mabel two weeks before. There was a good representation of people, although the numbers seemed down.

Some of the VFW members, who co-sponsored the forum, recalled a much larger crowd four years ago in a similar forum. However, that one wasn’t competing against a large rally, which may have had some impact, and the one four years ago featured county commissioner candidates rather than auditor-treasurer candidates, which likely attracted more interest.

Then again, maybe there is something else at work here. It could be that local politics just aren’t seen as important as they once did.

It’s not surprising that the rally in Rochester drew large crowds. It was a chance for people to see a sitting president in close proximity and President Trump is a charismatic speaker.

Although the purpose of the rally was to boost Republican candidates in Minnesota, the focus was primarily on Trump. Much of his endorsements for local candidates played into his national agenda, such as his comment that votes for opponents of Republican House candidates are votes for Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who would become House speaker if her party wins a majority in the House.

People who attended from this area also traveled to Rochester because of President Trump. A couple of those — one supporter and one protester — who were in the Spring Valley Tribune earlier that day never mentioned anyone but Trump as a reason for going.

Tip O’Neill, House speaker from 1977 to 1987, once said “all politics is local.” The phrase was often repeated in the years since his reign.

However, now it seems all politics is national. The ramifications of the Judge Kavanaugh hearing reinforced that trend as his appointment to the Supreme Court has become a rallying cry for both parties to turn out the vote.

In fact, the midterm election has become almost entirely a referendum on President Trump. There was some degree of that in past midterm elections, but it is surely heightened in 2018 as Democrats rally to stop Trump with opposition candidates and Republicans rally to keep his agenda going by electing representatives and senators who will vote with him.

Local issues are getting crowded out of the national agenda. An example is neighboring Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a state that overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2016. Heitkamp, who is up for election this year. was seen as a potential swing vote in the Kavanaugh confirmation, although she ultimately voted against confirmation.

Following her vote, she took out campaign ads to explain her vote, reminding North Dakota voters that her decision wasn’t partisan as she had supported Trump’s first court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Still, her race will likely focus on that vote as she has reportedly already had a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, since she arrived back in North Dakota.

Likely she would rather be talking about core local issues rather than what impact she and her party have on the future of the Supreme Court.

Trump isn’t necessarily the reason for the rise in nationalized politics at the local level, although he has certainly intensified it.

Theories on the reasons for this trend include the nationalization of media — people are more apt to watch cable news or read nationwide newspapers than view their own hometown media — and even the rise of social media — people find like-minded friends from across the nation while ignoring neighbors living on the same street.

Local offices, such as those sought by our county candidates, haven’t become nationalized since they have no impact on national issues. Still, it seems as if local politics is getting crowded out of the conversation as the focus becomes centered on what happens in Washington, D.C., and which local candidates can support or resist a nationwide movement.

It’s a worrisome trend. After all, the majority of the taxes people pay, the condition of the streets drivers use, the state of education for local children, the level of police protection and the status of other such things have far more of an impact on people than who will be casting a yes or no vote for Trump’s agenda.

Local candidates may not be helping to decide who is on the Supreme Court, which immigration laws are enacted or what environmental protections are enacted, but they have an important role, too. People need to take some time and become educated about what is happening in their own city, school district and county.