Election 2016: Presidential Candidates Who Aren’t Going to Win

Aside from Donald and Hillary, here’s who’s appearing on the ballot in Minnesota:

Darrell Castle and Scott Bradley (Constitution Party)
Dan R. Vacek and Mark Elworth, Jr. (Legal Marijuana Now)
Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart (Socialist Workers Party)
Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins (Green Party)
“Rocky” Roque De La Fuente and Michael Steinberg (American Delta Party)
Evan McMullin and Nathan Johnson (Independence)
Gary Johnson and William Weld (Libertarian Party)

I’m just going to go down this list in order and tell you who these people are and what they stand for, with particular attention to whether they’d be a plausible candidate for you if you’re a Republican who won’t vote for Trump and can’t bring yourself to vote for Clinton.

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Election 2016: State Representative District 60A

(By request.)

This is a much more interesting race than a typical Minneapolis legislative race, because there’s no Republican at all and the Democrat is instead being challenged by an “Independent Progressive Liberal.”

The two candidates:

Diane Loeffler (incumbent, DFL)
Gabe Barnett (challenger, endorsed by the Green Party, chose to list his party as “Independent Progressive Liberal.”)

Diane Loeffler has been in the legislature for 12 years. Per her Wikipedia page, she has actual bona fide expertise on health care policy; she’s a health care policy analyst and planner for Hennepin County as her day job. Not surprisingly, if you click the Issues page on her website, the first thing you’ll see is a page about health care.

She supports “universal access” (“Universal access to affordable health care whether unemployed, self-employed or involved in a small business”) and doesn’t talk on her website about single-payer, even as a long-term sort of goal. In talking about costs, she focuses on “changes the promote health, prevention, and universal coverage,” which…okay. I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers here and I am not an expert, but. There’s only so much you can do to get people to voluntarily make changes that “promote health.” (We’ve successfully shifted societal norms around smoking, but that took literally decades.) I think the idea that we can control health costs by encouraging healthy lifestyle choices is really questionable. It’s a politically safe answer but I’m super doubtful, in part just due to all the many people I’ve known over the years who were perfectly healthy until suddenly they weren’t.

On the plus side, she talks about both “support for home care” and “an improved system of options when home care isn’t enough,” and it is really damn rare to see people address caregiving; she’s clearly aware of the importance of not incentivizing self-destructive behavior (if it’s expensive to get a mammogram, a lot of people will just skip it); and public health approaches.

I was thinking that I really thought there should be some up-to-date information on how she wants to deal with MNsure-related stuff but then I got to her “Fairness and Respect” issues page and saw that it includes “Formally recognize in law all long-term committed relationships, including gay and lesbian partnerships” and now I’m curious when she last updated this site in any way.

Gabe Barnett’s campaign site is a Facebook page. He has a little sidebar that links to gabebarnett.com but when I clicked, that just took me back to the FB page. A campaign FB is definitely better than nothing, but if you want to track down someone’s position on issues they’re a lot harder to find.

In his pinned post up top, he says, “Our community’s leaders should share our values of equity, justice, and compassion for all people, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, or income. Our elected officials should share our passion for a truly sustainable approach to the environment, and remain steadfast in our goal of protecting our natural resources and stopping climate change. Our representatives in St. Paul should be leading the conversation on these progressive ideals, and pushing the envelope on innovative ways to address them with integrity and conviction.” Someone left a question asking how he differed from Loeffler, and he said, “Thanks for inquiring. We will be releasing my full platform in the coming weeks.” On his FB page, the closest thing I found to a platform is this image. I’ll note two things: (1) the image was posted in May, and he promised a full platform soon in June, so this is definitely not what he meant. (2) if you’re using a screen reader, images of text on Facebook are completely inaccessible. So if you’re blind, you’re not going to be able to read it.

I will admit that I feel some hostility toward people who talk a good line about progressivism, but even while campaigning, can’t be bothered to do a few really minimal things (like not posting important text in picture-only format).

I guess I’ll also note that the text starts out, “Together WE can… * get corporate money and influence out of Minnesota politics and restore power to the people. * eradicate institutional racism, sexism, and classism from the public sector” — so, no ableism listed. (It goes on for 15 more lines that I’m not going to type out. If you’re using a screen reader, I would strongly encourage you to e-mail Gabe at gabe.for.northeast@gmail.com and ask him to send you a text version.)

Fundamentally it looks like he doesn’t disagree with Loeffler on much; he thinks that in general the Northeast representative should be trying to push the Overton Window to the left and apparently doesn’t think Loeffler’s doing a good job there. Here’s his statement: “I believe that, as progressive and diverse as Northeast is, we should be boldly leading the conversation on making Minnesota an inclusively equitable and sustainable state, not meekly toeing a moderate party line.”

And, okay, I kind of get where he’s coming from here, but you know, I am pretty sure he is vastly overestimating the legislature’s overall interest in listening to anyone’s Bold Conversation.

There’s a nice article about Gabe that ran in a freebie local paper. He starts out complaining that too many people ignore “down-ballot politics.” (Tell me about it, Gabe.) He also notes, “Whether it’s gay marriage, or smoking bans, or medical marijuana, these things happen when this city does it, then that state does it, then that county does it, then this city does it, and all of a sudden it’s a national movement” — and yeah, I think he’s often correct. He goes on to say he was inspired by Bernie (cool) and that he’s undecided on the Presidential race (less cool). (He does say that if it looks close in Minnesota he’ll hold his nose and vote for Hillary, and he isn’t super impressed by Jill Stein, either.) This article also talks about his in-person outreach to the community: “Social media’s a great tool…but again, local politics should be about community engagement.” To which I would say that community engagement is great, but when you’re talking about an area with almost 18,000 households and over 40,000 people, there are some real advantages to having a centralized place with a bunch of information about yourself, like a website. With your platform.

Gabe comes across as super young to me, but he’s actually 35, so not that much younger than I am. He’s a musician (a fairly successful one — his band, Gabe Barnett and Them Rounders, has performed at First Ave).

Fundamentally, here’s what strikes me about this race.

There’s a legitimate philosophical question about what you want from your elected representatives. Do you prefer someone who is pragmatic, who will set smaller, more achievable goals and get more of those things done, or would you prefer someone who is idealistic, who will have big goals and try to inspire people to work toward that goal, and who (honestly) probably won’t get anything done in the short term? If what you want is something big and sweeping, do you think you’re more likely to achieve it in baby steps, or with the revolutionary, aim-for-the-moon approach?

At this point in my life, I will pick the pragmatist pretty much every time. Half a loaf is not only better than no loaf, it’s way more than I was expecting. Typically I feel like I’m doing pretty well if we get 1/4 of a loaf. But I have very close friends whose views I respect who want their representative to throw that loaf to the side and say “you motherfucker, that is HALF. HALF A LOAF. For people who have NO BREAD. Why should we take this?”

I guess what I really want (and what I definitely feel like I had in my old district and have in my current district) is a legislator who will grab that half a loaf and put it somewhere safe and them come back to the table and pitch a fit about the missing half.

Is that what 60A has in Diane Loeffler? This is one of the things that’s harder to know from outside the district. Even if she’ll just shrug and take the half-loaf, though, that’s who I’d want representing me in the legislature because so much of what the legislature is about is fighting for these incremental changes in the face of complete intransigence. (I mean, the titanic fight that got us passage of one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country would be a good illustration of this.)

Diane Loeffler’s “Results” page has some hilarious examples of what I mean, though. It includes, “Diane worked to make more aware of property tax refunds (1/3 of those eligible don’t apply).” This is one of those tiny accomplishments that nonetheless put a chunk of money in the pocket of a bunch of people who were probably able to make good use of it. She got $24 million allocated to replace a bridge in the Northeast that was in particularly poor condition. She mentions helping to pass the graduated licensing law, which restricts new teenage drivers. (Some of this stuff looks really old. I think this really might have been a good year to update her site, though possibly she checked out her opponent’s FB page and the fact that he never got a platform uploaded made her figure she didn’t need to bother.)

If I lived in this district, it’s possible that Gabe would door-knock me and blow me away so much I’d vote for him. But part of my attitude here (which also heavily influenced my preferences during the Democratic primary) is that I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, immersed in the talk-a-good-line, never-get-shit-done school of progressivism, and I’m kind of over it. If you have goals like “make Minnesota’s public colleges tuition-free” I have a lot of questions. Where are you going to get the money? How are you going to set this up so it’s not just a blank check for the university to spend money on stupid shit? How long will individuals from other states have to live here to qualify for residency, and how will this impact the ability of Minnesotans to get in to our colleges and universities? Will this be an unlimited sort of deal or four years only? What if someone changes their major? What about students who come in needing remedial work? …I mean, it’s not that I don’t think this is a good idea. At the very least, I think that public college tuition should be something that every student can pay for by working part-time in a crappy job. (I also think that if someone got B’s and A’s in college-preparatory classes at their high school and arrived at the university and got told they needed remedial classes, their school district should be on the hook for the cost of the remediation.) And finally, how are you going to accomplish this when the legislature wasn’t even able to pass a transportation bill? There are 5.457 million Minnesotans; the House Rep for 60A will represent 40,000 of them.

(If you have a request for an analysis of a Minneapolis or St. Paul race I haven’t written about, feel free to let me know. I don’t do suburban or outstate races because I’m insufficiently versed in local jargon, hot-button issues, etc.)

Election 2016: State Senator District 64

The candidates for my State Senate seat are Dick Cohen (DFL) and Ian Baird (Republican).

Dick Cohen, the Senator from my current district, has been in the Minnesota legislature since 1976. He’s not as old as you might think — he got elected for the first time when he was ridiculously young, and so he’s younger than my father. But since 1976, my father has lived in four different cities and worked at four separate universities, despite being a faculty member (who, as everyone knows, typically get tenure somewhere and stay there basically forever). In those same forty years Dick Cohen has stayed in St. Paul, and in the legislature. (He did move from the House to the Senate ten years in.) I will admit some mixed feelings about legislators who serve for this long.

But he’s kept up with the times and has been a hard-working, reliable progressive vote.

Ian Baird looks about eighteen to me. His biography talks about his parents’ dairy business and says, “Today I work as a theater artist and carpenter.  I’ve worked on shows ranging from  Les Miserables to, well, shows you’ve never heard of.” This got me curious and I went looking for his CV. Most theater professionals make it really easy to find them, via a listing like this one on Minnesota Playlist. Or a website. Or a LinkedIn page. I turned up a LinkedIn page that might be Ian’s; I’m not sure. It’s even more pathetic than my LinkedIn page. I did find a CV that might be his here. If it’s his, he graduated college in 2013, so that explains why he looks so ridiculously young.

He also probably went here: https://unwsp.edu/ (I’m not 100% sure because there are a number of academic institutions named Northwestern. This is based in part on what I found on the LinkedIn page.) This is a small, weird, very conservative, very Christian college. They also emphasize career-oriented degrees, so the fact that he emerged with a History degree and a Theater minor is kind of fascinating.

He also doesn’t appear to have turned out the sort of Christian his parents were probably hoping for when they sent him off to school, given that his “About” page that goes with the CV includes the observation that “Religion, like performance, offers a place for people to hide from the reality of who they are.”

Working my way to his actual campaign: his positions include “why do we pay for trains when I never ride them,” “I’ve heard lots of horror stories about education,” and “paid leave legislation is bad.” He’s also pro-transparency (fair), thought the police officer who shot Philando Castile should be tried (yay), and has nothing much to say either on his campaign website or his campaign Facebook page about the GOP’s social positions. His Facebook page also mentions that he’s pro-fireworks and views himself as the candidate for fans of Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation. (I am fond of Ron as a character, but have never said to myself, “wow, I wish I could have him represent me in the legislature.” I’d totally vote for Knope, though.)

Unclear: whether he’s reflected at all on the fact that most of the people in his party view arts funding the way he views trains, or the fact that most of the people in his profession are heavily dependent on health care plans set up by Democrats.

 

Anyway, it’s an interesting picture. Not someone I’d vote for, but I wish Ian success in his life as a Theater artist and I hope he’s gained financial independence from his parents, because I bet they are a lot more conservative than he is.

 

Everyone else should vote for the progressive dinosaur!

 

Election 2016: Constitutional Amendment 1

There is a constitutional amendment on the Minnesota ballot this year! Statewide. (Obviously.) Here’s what it says:

Remove Lawmakers’ Power to Set Their Own Pay
Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to remove state lawmakers’ power to set their own salaries, and instead establish an independent, citizens-only council to prescribe salaries of lawmakers?

You can vote Yes, or No. If you leave it blank, that counts as a No.

So my first gut reaction to this is as follows: I suspect that the legislators have put this on the ballot because they would really like a raise, and they would really like it not to be on them to give themselves a raise, because if you do vote yourself a raise people will slam you for it and sometimes people will indignantly run against you because you gave yourself a raise after not accomplishing whatever it was they particularly wanted you to get done that session.

How much are legislators paid at the moment? I found that info over on the Minnesota State Legislature FAQ:  a Legislator’s salary is $31,140 per year. That said, it’s allegedly not a full-time job; you’re not in session all year. If legislators have another job, the FAQ notes they’re protected from firing over their legislative-session-absence and also their employer isn’t allowed to fire them if they dislike how they voted, which is hilarious but also a good idea, I’d say.

They get a per diem during the legislative session (key, for people who live somewhere up on the Iron Range — it’s not like they can go home at night to sleep) and I was trying to find that info out from this helpful document about compensation and that wasn’t in there, but it did mention that the last time the legislature got a raise was in 1999. It also noted, “The 2013 Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment regarding how legislators’ salaries are determined. The 2014 Legislature modified the text of the proposed amendment and passed a bill that put that amendment to voters. The amendment will be voted on at the 2016 general election.” So this has been in the works for a while.

There’s a MinnPost article from 2013 about the question of whether legislators are underpaid.  It covers the per diem issue but also quotes former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe on the whole “part time” issue. “It’s difficult for the public to understand that it’s really not part-time,” Moe says. “It’s a 150-percent of the time job for five or six months of the year, and about a 75-percent of the time job the rest of the year. It’s more than a full-time job and you kind of build your life around it.”

(They’re not as underpaid as the Minneapolis and probably also the St. Paul school board. I can tell you that Minneapolis school board members work a more-than-full-time job for under $15,000/year and a measurable percentage of the job is to be the target of hatred, resentment, and angry criticism. I would raise both Minneapolis and St. Paul school board members’ salaries tomorrow to a reasonable full-time salary, if I could, because I sincerely believe that they’d get better people who would be more likely to be able to solve the district’s problems if people who need to work for a living could afford to serve. That salary: also set by the legislature.)

The MinnPost article notes that the legislature has the same problem, to some degree: the skimpy pay doesn’t stop people from running, but it causes a lot of people to decide they can’t afford to run again.

The comments section on that article kind of illustrates the problem: “Slackers and lemmings not ‘entitled’ to increases.” “That does not justify higher pay because constituents did not benefit from your choice to work long hours.” Several people pointed out that we might get better, smarter people running for office if we paid them a living wage; a not-outstandingly-smart-sounding retired woman who can’t spell said she’d serve for free.

A more recent article in MinnPost talks about this issue again, noting that even mentioning legislative pay is just full-on radioactive for legislators, and that a lot of legislators wind up really struggling financially.

Apparently in New Mexico, state legislators don’t get paid at all. This piece compares legislative pay and talks about the benefits (and drawbacks) of a well-paid legislature.

Here’s the fundamental thing, I guess. I do think people should get paid fairly for their work, and that includes lawmakers. The solution to crappy legislators is kicking them out of office at election time, not saying “none of you get paid today!” I think a citizen commission will pay people fairly. (I don’t think it will pay them lavishly. I think it will compensate them reasonably for the actual hours they work, or at least, they’ll do a better job of this than the legislators can politically do for themselves.) This seems like a good idea to me and I am going to vote in favor of this amendment.

 

 

Election 2016: Judicial Races – State Supreme Court

It’s been weirdly hard to focus on these writeups this year because thinking about politics is far more stressful than it normally is. I’m going to try to focus and get a few more done today.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, you’ll get a long list of judges running for re-election but on neither the ballot for my current address nor the ballot for my former address does anyone running for District Court or Court of Appeals have any opponents. (I don’t know how I missed the fact that several Minneapolis judicial races are contested. I’ll get to those shortly.)

I nearly always vote for incumbents in judicial races because 99.99% of the time, the person running against the incumbent is a kook, at best. (In most cases they’re from the Michele Bachmann school of wingnuttery or something similarly appalling.) On those occasions that you have a genuinely awful incumbent, I expect that people advocating for the challenger will have made a pretty concerted effort to make sure I know why I should be voting differently this time around.

Frankly, I think candidate vs. candidate judicial races are a bad idea. I would prefer to see Y/N voting, with a judge removed if there’s a majority saying they shouldn’t be a judge anymore, with new judges selected by a committee and appointed by the governor or something along those lines. (My father is a political scientist and how judges are selected is one of his areas of specialty.)

Anyway, the only judicial race that’s contested this time is for the Supreme Court. You can choose between Natalie Hudson, an experienced, respected justice supported by basically all the people in the state who know or care about the court system, and Michelle MacDonald, a certified whackjob who has no business anywhere near the legal profession.

I did a detailed writeup about Michelle two years ago and I’ll just link to that rather than trying to recap. The only major update is that the Grazzini-Rucki kids turned up in the last year; it was their mother who hid them; the mother has now been tried and found guilty for felony deprivation of parental rights and is serving a short prison sentence.

Michelle MacDonald’s behavior and demeanor are erratic; she has repeatedly gotten herself into serious trouble due to a complete lack of respect for legal procedure; she has marginal emotional control over herself in situations where professionals are expected to be able to keep a grip on themselves. She has poor grammar and punctuation. She waves Bibles around in speeches.

Even if you find things in Michelle’s rants that sound appealing, she should under no circumstances be trusted with a judgeship. Vote for Natalie Hudson in this race.

 

Crossing the Streams

When I run into someone in the Twin Cities who says “oh my gosh, Naomi Kritzer? I am a huge fan of your work!” they always, every single time, mean my political blogging. This is true even when I’m at a Science Fiction convention.

Outside the Twin Cities they mean my SF/F. (Not that this happens all that often! But it has happened at least a few times.)

Fundamentally, I ought to have two blogs for people to follow: one that’s all the SF/F stuff, one that’s all the political blogging. Despite the fact that blogging sites recognize this as a thing people want to do, and try to make it easy, I totally don’t have the logistical and organizational wherewithal to do two blogs. I don’t know how my friends with multiple pen names pull it off.

 

Methodology

I had a couple of people ask me this year how I do my research. I just want to note again that I’m a hobbyist, not a journalist, so I can’t call people up and say “this is Naomi Kritzer from the local paper of record, calling to ask you questions about your campaign.” (I tend to assume that real journalists get quick responses to their questions, especially when they’re softball questions like “what makes you different from your opponent?” but I may actually be totally wrong about this. I’ll tell you this: “I’m a political blogger” does not open doors. People get this nervous, guarded look, like they think you’re probably a lunatic.)

My core research tool is Google, but there are some specific techniques I use and stuff I look for.

1. Get the slate of candidates.

In Minnesota, you can get the precise slate of candidates for your precinct by visiting the MN Secretary of State’s site and putting in your zip code and address: http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/Default.aspx Once it gets to a month or so before the election you can even view a sample ballot.

The candidate list (though not the sample ballot) usually includes links to most of their websites. This is not perfect: some candidates, including one fairly high-profile one, wrote their URLs down wrong (or they got put in wrong at the elections office.) Nonetheless, the links can save time.

Getting the list is critical for the downballot races because they’re so rarely covered in voter guides.

2. Look at the websites of the candidates.

Interpreting a candidate’s website can be one of those areas where there’s no substitute for a base of local knowledge, because so often there’s subtle code. I mean, not always — sometimes, you have a nice straightforward choice between an obvious conservative and an obvious liberal and you can pick your political philosophy and be done with it. (And in fact, in a U.S. Senate or U.S. House race you should probably just decide whether you like Democrats or Republicans and stick with those candidates, because you’re not just voting for Jane Q. Minnesotan, you’re voting for her party to control that branch of government.) In local elections, though, this may be a whole lot less clear, and there are more likely to be highly contentious issues that don’t break down neatly along party lines.

“Fiscal responsibility” is something of a Republican buzzword and it can mean “I think teachers are overpaid and guidance counselors are a waste of money” but it can also mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.” “No handouts to billionaires” is a Democratic buzzword and it can mean “I think tax breaks for large employers are always a terrible idea, even when we’re offering incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed” but it can ALSO mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.”

One of the words you’ll see a lot in local elections is “transparency.” Sometimes this means, “I am totally convinced that if only we posted all our minutes on a website, people would take a sudden passionate interest in solid waste management.” Or, “We should hire someone to do VIDEO of all those solid waste management committee meetings and put THOSE on a website. Or local access cable! THE PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW. EVERY. DETAIL.” Other times it means, “I can’t actually claim that my opponent is corrupt but everyone knows he is, and I’m promising fewer no-bid contracts, back-room deals, and mutual back-scratching arrangements.” And occasionally it means, “I’m a corrupt jackass and I’m going to do that nifty political trick where I try to suggest my opponent has the exact problems that are my greatest weakness.” Again, some knowledge of the local people involved can help.

It’s always worth looking to see what they think the issues are, because that all by itself can be extremely revealing. When I’m evaluating politicians, especially at the local level, I’m a big fan of people who will commit to specifics. Everyone agrees that the achievement gap is a problem, so promising to erase the achievement gap is pretty meaningless if you’re not saying “…by doing x, y, and z.” (Of course, if people are promising totally ridiculous specifics, it’s totally fine to hold that against them.)

Endorsements pages are also often very interesting. First off, as a general rule, if someone has no endorsements, that’s a good indicator that they’re a flake. (I mean, get all your friends to endorse you. At least make it look like your trying!) Second, they may be endorsed by politicians you know you hate, even if they’re technically members of your party. (For the record, I loathed Norm Coleman back when he was a Democrat, too.) Or by people you know are nuts. You also get situations where the candidate is saying nothing particularly socially conservative anywhere on their website but has endorsements from socially conservative groups; that’s a pretty good indicator that they hold very socially conservative views, even if they’re keeping quiet about them this week.

If I’m having a really hard time sussing out what someone is like, I will sometimes go through the list of names on their endorsements page, Google the individuals, and try to figure out whether they run liberal or conservative. I mean, there’s limits, with private individuals, but often you’ll find out that they’re board members of some non-profit, or they work as lobbyists, or they’re high-level executives in some industry… this, however, can be a whole lot of work.

3. Google the candidates.

If a candidate has a very common name, or if they share a name with a celebrity, I’ll try adding the state, the city, the county, the job they’re running for, their political party if I know it, each political party in turn if I don’t, and various relevant issues.

Sometimes, I will look specifically for news stories. You can adjust the dates on Google News if you click “Search Tools” on your results page, and look for stuff that’s less recent. There are certain local sources I’ll always click on. One of my favorites is the City Pages, because their searchable archive goes way back and they’ve always liked covering scandals. Obviously I’ll click if I spot a Star Tribune link. I also like mnpost.com and tcdailyplanet.net. If I hit a really old article that looks promising but appears to only be in a paid archive (Highbeam, for instance), I make a note of where it appeared and visit my local library’s website; they have paid access to a bunch of news databases. Usually, the stuff I’m after doesn’t require archaeological skills, but every now and then I really have to dig. (It helps a lot if I have some idea of what I’m digging for.)

I look for candidates’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; sometimes I can get more information on them that way (sometimes they’re just very, very boring — serious campaigns for high-level offices always have Twitter feeds but they tend to be shockingly dull.)

If I’m really digging (especially in minor races where I haven’t been able to find much) I will look people up on LinkedIn. That can be a good way to see if this minor candidate has some qualification for the office they’re running for. Also, sometimes there’s stuff that will tip you off about their views and/or agenda.

Blogs are great. I’m always really excited when I find a blog, especially if it’s from a few years ago, before this person was thinking about running for public office, and they might actually say what they think instead of couching everything in politically palatable euphemisms.

Minneapolis has a long-standing mailing list called the Issues List which is archived online. Sometimes I can find a fantastic gossipy discussion full of invective that relates to a particular candidate. It’s fun when it’s people talking about them; it’s even MORE fun when they were a participant.

Interviews with candidates are basic but sometimes very solid. Interviews from a partisan source are more likely to be interesting. (Bonus points when the candidate forgets that Democrats AND Republicans will be able to read this interview.) Voter’s Guides, of course, if they filled them out. If they refused to fill out a Voter’s Guide that can also be revealing. (Sometimes what it reveals is, “this is not a serious candidate.”)

4. Watch video / listen to radio.

This is not my favorite research method but I will do it occasionally. It can be particularly interesting if you can dig it up from primary season. Something I realized this time is that you can make a YouTube video skip five seconds forward or backward by using your arrow keys. (You have to start it, pause it, and restart it in order to activate that feature. It’s possible it doesn’t work on all videos.) This is especially good to know if you’re trying to watch a primary-season debate during the main season because who cares what Kurt Zellers said?

Sometimes, candidates will put all their substantive ideas on videos so you have to sit through them yammering to find out what they think about anything. I hate that approach so profoundly that all by itself it’s going to be a huge strike against any candidate who does it. I have a lot of races to research and a lot of candidates to sift through, and I can read a lot faster than I can listen.

5. Ask questions.

Sometimes I want to know something about a candidate’s stance that’s not on their website, and I will e-mail them to ask for more information. I’ve had a wide range of responses to this, from prompt helpful e-mails back to “can you please call me so we can chat? here’s my number” to complete radio silence.

I get mixed results with this. Jeff Johnson (GOP candidate in the governor’s race) ignored me. Hannah Nicollet (Independence candidate in the governor’s race) asked me to call her, which I did, and we talked on the phone for a bit. Nelson Inz asked me to call him, which I ended up not doing. Jay Larson e-mailed back to ask me for a more specific question, but then did not follow up with a response to my more specific question. (I’d asked him how he differed from his opponent; he wanted to know a more specific concern so I asked him about the District 5 high school options. No reply.)

Asking me to call is fine. E-mailing back is fine. Having a campaign worker e-mail back is also fine. For someone in a local race to never respond at all is not fine and communicates a tremendous amount of arrogance, IMO. If I really want an answer I may try Twitter and the campaign Facebook page as well. (I tried that with Mark Andrews during last year’s mayoral race and he did not answer me ANYWHERE. I sort of wondered if he was avoiding me because he thought I was nobody, or if he was avoiding me because he knew who I was and did not expect a favorable writeup?)

When a candidate persistently ignores me I always wonder if they ignore reporters, too. I don’t usually lead with “I’m a blogger” — I just tell them I’m researching candidates for the upcoming election and I have a question about X, here’s my e-mail address, thank you. But, if they Google me, they’ll find my blog. And I know some of the local politicians know who I am! (I am “Minnesota sci-fi writer and astute local political commentator,” thank you, Gawker. I think I’m going to put that on my business cards.) But fundamentally, when I write to a candidate, I’m writing as a voter. And I think I deserve as much of a response as any other voter. I don’t expect a personal reply when I write to Obama or Franken or Dayton (or McFadden or Johnson, before yesterday). But I do expect a personal reply when I write to my State Legislator or my City Council Rep — not necessarily from them, but from their staff or a volunteer.

When I wrote to my City Council rep in St. Paul to grouse about the horrifying road work being done on Ford Parkway this fall and the fact that it was happening at the same time as Montreal Ave was closed, I got a fairly lengthy and apologetic e-mail back from their aide explaining why the scheduling happened the way it did. (It involved a fight for funding in one case, and a lawsuit regarding who they hired in the other, and then a desperate attempt to get everything done ASAP before winter. Annoying as hell, but it would be worse NOT to do the work, so…) When I wrote about the horrific mess that was Hamline Ave last spring, I got a similarly apologetic e-mail along with a promise that they were going to re-pave Hamline before winter. Which they did, hurray!

On a super fundamental level, that’s what accountability looks like to me: a willingness to answer my questions, to respond to me when I have a complaint. I don’t expect that to be instant; my elected officials have lives, kids, other jobs, other constituents. I don’t always expect to get what I want; all resources are limited, and (hopefully) my elected officials have a broader perspective than I do on what those short-term hassles will get us in the long run.

Anyway, if someone won’t answer my questions before they get the job, they’re certainly not likely to answer my questions after they get the job.

6. Share.

If you’re going to do this sort of work researching your local political races, your friends will appreciate it if you share, especially if they hold similar political views. I don’t know how big my readership is at this point, just that it’s way beyond my circle of personal friends because they found it useful enough to pass along.

Before I post stuff online, I try to organize my information: I want to have links to my sources. If someone dislikes my opinion, they can follow those links and form their own. My writeups tend to have a lot of snark, because that’s part of what makes this fun for me. I do, however, try to avoid committing libel. If something’s been alleged, I try to remember to say it’s an allegation. If I’m expressing an opinion, I try to make sure it’s expressed as an opinion.

I usually break do a separate post for each race, but if I have a lot to say about the candidates in some race I might break that one down by candidate because novella-length blog posts are annoying both to write and to read.

Shortly before the election I collect all my endorsements onto one page.

Local elections matter a lot. I was talking about this today with a friend on Facebook. It’s weird to me that people focus so heavily on the national elections, to the exclusion of the local races, given how much of your day-to-day quality of life is the result of stuff your state legislature and city council are doing (or not doing). You are not under any obligation to be exhaustively thorough: you can just sit down with your sample ballot and check out a few websites and ignore anyone who isn’t easy to find.