By law, Durango City Council elections are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t identify as Republican or Democrat on the ballot.
But political identities often influence ideas about how to address different issues, no matter how small. And voters often look first to a candidate’s political affiliation to inform their decisions about whom to support, especially during these times of heightened partisan politics.
While it may be difficult to separate political identities from policymaking, it is municipal leaders’ job to solve problems that often don’t have political connotations, said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.
“At the local level, there’s one thing we do differently than anyone else: We solve problems,” Mamet said. “We don’t fix Republican potholes, we don’t fix Democrat potholes, we just fix the damn potholes.”
But that doesn’t mean partisan politics don’t exist in municipal elections, said Paul DeBell, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College.
“I would say the lines of division are different, but there’s no such thing as an election that’s devoid of partisanship,” DeBell said.
The “lines of division” in a municipal election are more pragmatic than the rifts in state or national politics, he said. Municipal issues often don’t map on the typical bipartisan political spectrum, he said. While voters at the local level maintain political identities, local issues are often so tangible that they dilute the polarization found in national politics. Division grows as the issues involved become less ubiquitous, DeBell said.
For example, everyone in a city is directly affected by poor streets – voters, therefore, demand practical solutions and collaboration between politicians, DeBell said. But not everyone in the country experiences the direct impacts of immigration: People in Kansas may not have the same personal experience with immigration as someone who lives in Texas, but they’re still entitled to an ideology and voice on the issue, DeBell said.
Alma Evans, a politically engaged, unaffiliated Durango resident, said local elections are more personal than state or national elections: People in a small town may know a candidate personally, and although City Council hopefuls may be registered with the same party, they often have different ideas about how to address local issues.
The lines of division may not be who is Republican and who is Democrat, but rather who is affected by what policy decisions, Evans said. Someone may like a candidate because he or she is for more parks or against tax increases, and those lines of division often have to do with how policy decisions affect everyday life rather than which party a voter supports, she said.
“It’s like any election. You vote for someone who you think is going to do the best for the city, but people have different opinions on what’s best for the city,” she said. “But I don’t see a party line amongst City Council candidates. Everybody knows what your politics are, but that’s not why they’re running.”
Four candidates are running for two open seats in Durango’s City Council election. And candidates seemed to agree: Serving on City Council should be nonpartisan.
Kim Baxter, a 62-year-old retired consultant and small-business owner, said politics often divides communities when it is the job of a City Council to bring different perspectives together to find the best solution.
For her, it is clear that politics is not the reason she is running; she’s doing it to make Durango a better place to live, she said.
“Politics makes it more difficult to have conversations, it polarizes,” Baxter said. “If we look at what’s best, the conversation can be robust.”
Barbara Noseworthy, a 60-year-old strategic planning consultant, said all Durango residents face the same issues. Candidates have committed to policies on different issues that are important to them – like affordable housing or land-use codes – but she doesn’t see those commitments falling along party lines.
Mamet said local politicians often take stances as an embodiment of local values, not political ideology. Municipalities often face tough issues that people have core beliefs about, but those beliefs often aren’t idealogical, he said.
Noseworthy said she likes it that way. In the more than 60 conversations she’s had with residents, political affiliation hasn’t come up, she said.
“When you live in a small community, there’s more of an effort to be civil and respectful,” Noseworthy said. “There’s more of an effort to truly listen and be open.”
Marcos Wisner, a 31-year-old small-business owner, said people want to work toward bipartisanship, especially with the divide in national politics. But people have values that are often tied to their political identity, and identifying with a political party is a great mechanism for communication of values.
Wisner said he doesn’t want to chose one party over another. He’d rather be a sounding board for anyone who wants to talk about city issues, regardless of politics. His focus is on young voters – Wisner said he wants to get more young people, like himself, participating in local elections.
“We need to start to look at all these views working together to make some change, make some effective improvements,” Wisner said.
JJaime McMillan, a 51-year-old financial adviser and candidate for City Council, said there are factions in any political forum, but the nature of local elections often narrows the spectrum of different ideas about how to solve different problems. Conversations around budgets are often easier than discussions about gun rights or immigration.
“This is a domain where you can get a close look at the issues and make things better outside the political theater,” McMillan said.