I’ve been covering politics in Harrisburg for a decade, and, during that time, there have been three “change” elections in the city.
The first came in May 2009, when Linda Thompson defeated (extremely) entrenched incumbent Steve Reed in the mayoral primary. The second came four years later, when voters turned on Thompson. The third arrived last night.
Yesterday, Harrisburg voters firmly rejected the four sitting school board members on the primary ballot, delivering a strong message that they want new leadership in the school district.
It wasn’t even close.
The four candidates running on the “C.A.T.C.H.” reform slate beat the sitting incumbents by a margin of greater than 2-to-1. I’d call that a landslide, especially for a low-turnout, off-year primary, which often favors incumbents.
Similarly, Reed’s defeat—and then Thompson’s—were by unexpectedly (to me) large margins.
In my opinion, common threads have run through these elections. First, the losing candidates all conducted terrible campaigns, barely engaging the voting public. But, perhaps more importantly, these incumbents had come to be regarded as arrogant and out of touch, whistling past an electorate that clearly was unhappy with their performance.
Let’s focus on the school board.
Over the past year or so, I’ve remarked numerous times that the school administration and its supporters on the board seemed to be going out of their way to tick off residents.
Examples are many: fights with the state Department of Education, issues discussed behind closed doors, re-votes when the administration didn’t get its way, financial waste never properly addressed, tax hikes, the appointment of divisive figures on the board, for solicitor, for principal, for superintendent.
This list just scratches the surface.
Many residents came to conclude that the guiding principle of the school administration wasn’t fiscal responsibility or even education but the protection and continued employment of the top, well-paid school administrators, including the superintendent.
To make the situation worse, the incumbents refused to engage voters who had legitimate concerns. At debate after debate, they had numerous opportunities to explain to upset residents why they did what they did and voted as they voted—and make a pitch for their election. Instead, they simply didn’t show up—perhaps out of arrogance, perhaps out of fear. Or maybe invisibility was part of some weird electoral strategy.
In any case, the ballot box was the one way for residents to demonstrate that they were dissatisfied, even angry—and they did. And now they expect big changes to be made.
Let this be a lesson to other elected officeholders. When you’re a public servant, you need to act like one. Those tax dollars, that budget, those buildings—they aren’t yours. They belong to the people, and that remains true despite our profoundly flawed governing bodies.
To paraphrase one of the great American political sayings—you can fool some of the people some of the time. But eventually those people will get spitting mad, and they’ll gleefully toss you aside for someone, they believe, will prove to be better.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.