I’m playing catch-up after losing much of last week to stomach flu and having caught last Thursday’s Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation Mayoral Forum on cable TV. For those undecided and trying to pick a candidate, the forum was largely about two basic questions: ‘How can you change Naperville as mayor?’ and ‘Why should we change course from longtime Mayor George Pradel?’ The candidates, all serving on the city council and all thus sharing in Naperville’s successes and any shortcomings, were perhaps most distinctive in their backgrounds: George Pradel came across plainspoken as his “[Police] Officer Friendly” image; Mary Ellingson emphasized communication and rules like her teaching background might suggest; and Doug Krause, showing the most polished presentation in the Forum, benefited from communication skills drawn from his political experience (including seeking higher office).
The basic question, how can you change Naperville, was never usefully pursued, even if asked under different guises. Questions asking “what would you do as mayor” likely assumed ability – but while asking for candidate positions, they failed to address the candidate’s competency. Questions like those about the form of city government sought to get at a fundamental issue – but were never pursued in a way that drew useful distinctions among candidate competencies using the tools of city government. Competency is important, paradoxically, because of the long experience of the three candidates. In the Council-Manager form of government, the mayor is the first among equals in the Naperville City Council with a few exceptions. The debate between Mayor George Pradel (with 12 years of experience), Councilman Mary Ellingson (also with 12 years of experience) and Councilman Doug Krause (with 19 years experience) should have addressed if you haven’t already done it – why not – and how if at all would being mayor help you? It is largely a question about the mayor’s ability to coalition-build to win important council votes. This ‘question’ was most problematic, interestingly, for Doug Krause to answer. Positioning himself as holding a substantially different record on key issues compared to his two opponents, which is accurate, one has to ask if you haven’t been able over 19 years to get the five vote majority you need to act on key issues of difference – why should we believe you can do it now? This unanswered question blunted otherwise highly effective pro-resident voting anecdotes such as when Krause pointed to his (losing) vote for open land in the Hobson West development issue, or how he would have effected the smoking ban in Naperville businesses much earlier or how he was against the Nichols library parking deck because it’s in a residential area. The issue of effectiveness was also a lingering source of trouble when one considered issues like Krause’s advocacy of more mass transit (e.g. increasing busing to the 5th Avenue train station instead of building a parking deck for more cars). Krause’s greatest strength, the politically astute pointing out of key differences for votes, was also his greatest implicit weakness.
The second question, why should we change from Mayor George Pradel, was Doug Krause’s strong suit on the issues, and where Councilman Mary Ellingson stakes her campaign about process. Mary Ellingson, a teacher and psychologist, often differs little with Mayor Pradel on votes, but seeks to run city council meetings with more adherence to the rules, arguing that meetings will be shorter, and seeks to better communicate the reasoning behind decisions. A more transparent style of governing is certainly welcome as a general rule (as are successful efforts to shorten the horrendously long City Council meetings in particular) – and there is policy import in not ‘waiting out’ constituents by sticking their key issues at the end of a five hour weekday evening meeting – but it’s hard to imagine that this positioning is good politics. For most people focusing on process is akin to focusing on paint drying on a wall. Ellingson needs a better explanation to average voters of why any of this really matters if she votes with the current mayor most of the time. Most average voters are not watching every City Council meeting – or perhaps any – and that includes those that stay relatively politically informed about Naperville. Most voters care more about clear cut results. To ‘sell’ arguments about process you need to compellingly connect the process to the result – and show how changing the process can change the result for the better.
Most people in Naperville really like what the city has to offer and consider city services pretty well run. This basic appeal, acknowledged by all of the candidates, is presumably Mayor George Pradel’s strength along with his personality driven “Officer Friendly” popularity gained from his years as a Naperville Police sergeant. Nothing in the forum presented an overwhelming case for ousting the mayor, with even Doug Krause paying homage and saying that George Pradel would be a tough act to follow. Pradel’s strength is also his paradoxical weakness. It’s hard to motivate voters with “stay the course” in relatively “good” times. It is a majority of those voting, not a majority of city residents, that will decide the election.
The Daily Herald recently ran a story about low early voting turnout for the February 27 Naperville mayoral primary (178 votes as of last Tuesday). The story is important not only for showing low early voting interest among candidate supporters, but because it points to how easy any issue that mobilizes a relatively few voters – or no issues – might affect the race. Mayor Pradel’s “no issues” gambit is that people are generally satisfied enough with his 12 years to re-elect a popular mayor. Mary Ellingson’s “no issues” gambit is that voters are seeking less a change in direction than a change in the director (i.e. mayor). Doug Krause’s “issues” gambit is that voters motivated by development issues (among others) seek a change in direction whether or not they like the “director.” The early voting counts so far suggest that all three candidates may have their work cut out for them – or one or more candidates is working on a ‘catch them sleeping’ big turnout surprise. As it is, it seems that not all of the committed residents displaying mayoral candidate yard signs have voted early despite candidate appeals. Stay tuned.