What’s Next for Chapel Hill?
This year’s municipal election is over. There were wins I was proud of and losses that deeply disappointed me. Regardless of who you supported in this year’s elections, I think we can all agree that everyone who ran should be given our thanks for stepping up to the plate; that the incumbents who lost should be given our gratitude for their years of service; and that the council and mayoral newcomers should now be given our help, advice, and honest feedback to keep Chapel Hill moving forward on progressive issues.
I’m a fan of the TV show The West Wing, and though it ended years ago I rewatch it regularly. Not the least of the reasons why I keep watching is that it portrays a universe in which nearly everyone involved in political leadership is motivated by strong ideals, and works every day with a sense of duty to make their country a better place. And I’m reminded today of fictional President Josiah Bartlett’s phrase at the end of every battle, won or lost: What’s next?
After the happiness of victories and sadness of losses begin to fade, it’s time for us to ask ourselves: What’s next for Chapel Hill?
I would answer with two things: governance and organizing.
First, governance. As the yard signs come down and mailings cease, we still have a town to run. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that a divided council will mean a return to more split votes and close decisions. Your voice is going to be more important than ever before. Please join me in committing to making sure that the new town council hears your opinions and your priorities on a regular basis.
Politics at the local level is about so much more than growth and development. It’s about making sure our public employees are paid fairly and have an opportunity to live in the town they work in. It’s about providing leadership at the state and national level on issues from gun control to LGBT issues to local decision-making authority. It’s about supporting the state’s best public transit systems and getting people to think outside of the car. It’s about protecting our homeless, low-income populations, and others of the most vulnerable people in our community. It’s about continuing to grow our small local businesses and keeping our retail dollars here at home. It’s about finding new ways to use both innovative technology and good old-fashioned person-to-person outreach to make our town’s services and decision making accessible to everyone. And it’s about so much more.
We need to push our new leaders to make sure these issues that make our community the vibrant, progressive place we’re all proud to call home don’t fall by the wayside. They can’t do it without our help.
To achieve these goals, we need to have a conversation about political organizing.
Undoubtedly, the results of this most recent election were decided in large part by who could turn out the most bodies at the polls. And this was an unusual election. Though I disagreed with the narrative they presented, we saw what started as a small group of residents successfully organize and turn out thousands of voters for their candidates. As we look forward to future elections, it’s clear that their outcomes will be increasingly decided not by the issues alone, but by who can get out the vote for their candidates.
If progressives want to keep the council working on their issues, they need to change the face of the electorate. Chapel Hill is a diverse community, made up of people from all ages, all income levels, all races and ethnicities, and therefore all viewpoints and all priorities. Progressives need to expand the voter base. We need to ensure that a 20-year-old college student who has never before voted, a 40-year-old single mother who couldn’t imagine finding the time to follow local elections, and a 60-year-old retiree all have an equal vote and that we build a Chapel Hill that works equally well for each of them.
After yesterday’s election, I posed a question on social media: What would happen if 5000 young people, students, low-income people, renters, minorities, and other people historically underrepresented in local government showed up to the polls in two years? I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out.
To achieve this is going to take organizing of a kind we haven’t done before, using tools we haven’t used in local elections before. I don’t know what this will look like yet, and I don’t know what the right vehicle to make it happen will be. But I do know that it has to happen.
I am hopeful that 2016 will bring about unprecedented registration of new voters in Chapel Hill to do our part in making progressive change at the state and federal level. But registering voters for the even years isn’t enough. We need to build a movement to engage them at the local level, and turn them out to vote in 2017, 2019, and beyond.
And so, at the end of a long letter, you find my call to action. Help me figure out how to build this movement. Help me figure out the right strategy and the right tactics to make it happen. Now is the time to get started. What tools do we need? What data do we need? How can we grow and educate our local electorate now, so that we have an enormous pool of informed and engaged voters at the next local election? I want to do this. I want you to help.
Originally posted on OrangePolitics.org.