Dr. Andrea Benjamin is a political science professor at The University of Missouri whose research focuses on local elections and how community organizations can influence them. She joined us in-studio to analyze last week’s municipal election. She says Columbia is unique because of the level of civil engagement promoted by its citizens and public officials.
You can view the full interview below:
Dr. Andrea Benjamin: I think generally speaking, the city sort of, in reelecting Mayor Treece has decided that the direction that the city was already going, we're going to continue in that direction. I think the turnout was low. 20 percent is low. It’s nowhere near what it should be, given the important things that this mayor and council are going to be tasked with doing over the next couple of years. I mean, at the local level, I think 50 percent is considered I think, pretty high. Whereas the presidential election, that's maybe standard. You know, it's not so much that I think it needs to be a certain number. I think it's more, you know, wanting there to be an excitement. And I'll be honest with you with the two city council elections not being competitive. There wasn't anything to be excited about. Because on the one hand, you could say this is great. We had two people that were already serving in the position. And this is the community's way of saying they're doing a good job. That's the optimistic view. The pessimistic view is even if I didn't want to reelect those people, who would I vote for? I didn't have a choice.
Jamie Hobbs: Yeah, that makes me think too about how in an ideal world, it would be that the community is saying that they're doing a good job. But I don't know if we can accurately measure that, because maybe people who did want to run weren't able to.
AB: Right, the council job is hard. And it does not pay very well. It cannot be your full-time job. And so there is a selection bias about who's even eligible to take on the task for basically free. So then only a certain type of person: retired, or has a flexible job, or is independently wealthy. Right now, you're the only people that can run. Even if someone did want to challenge them, the question sort of becomes: “how?”
AB: The thing I think is unique about Columbia, having only been here for about 15 months is, one is I think that there are a lot of really committed residents. So I've gone to city council meetings, it's almost always full. People really care. We have organizations that are very active, and they're very engaged with the process. So Race Matters, Friends produced an alternate report to the report that came out of the police department. And it was data driven. On the flip side, and sort of what I think, went really well for Mayor Treece and his reelection is, I haven't read anything or seen him do anything that doesn't include community engagement. The thing I thought he kept at the forefront is, we have two really big decisions coming up, we are going to hire a city manager, and in turn that manager’s going to hire a new police chief, and at every turn mayor Treece said there will be an opportunity for the community to engage and to bring public comment. So I think those two things do make Columbia really unique.
AB: one of the things that I noticed in just doing my research on the candidates is sort of how each candidate at the mayoral level wanted to address affordable housing. One of the things that made me pleasantly surprised was that Mayor Treece was pushing for home ownership and affordable housing. Chris Kelly also had some thoughts about it-I don't know that he was as explicit. But when we take a step back, one of the biggest reasons that we care about homeownership is it is sort of built into this idea of the American Dream. And for most families, the most valuable thing that they own is their home, you know. Throughout history, there's things like red lining, so African Americans, you can't buy a home here. And then even if you do buy a home here, then all of your neighbors sell their homes, and now your home isn't worth what you paid for it. So I think the most equitable path for most people is homeownership. Affordable housing can't just continue to be renting. If your family has never owned a home, it is likely you might not ever either, right? Because by the time you got to save, down payments, all these things. And so when we're talking about affordable housing, I think if we're not having a conversation about homeownership, we will still be in the same place 15 years, 20 years, we will never fix it.