I witnessed democracy in action yesterday, and I am left scratching my head. In our town, the mayor, a nice man named Gow Fields (above, right), was being challenged by a contentious city commissioner named Howard Wiggs (above, left). I took the trouble to Google them, and I got the impression (rightly or wrongly) that Wiggs is one of the city’s good ol’ boys who have run this town from time immemorial, one of those guys who might hang out at the Lakeland yacht club buying each other drinks and trading favors.
Wiggs listed his net worth at around $2 million, while Fields claimed to be worth a couple of hundred thousand, and that alone would have convinced me that I have more in common with Fields than with Wiggs. The clincher, though, was the fact that Wiggs had blasted Fields for advocating modest gun control. The NRA had bought an ad denouncing Fields, and I wondered whether the gun nuts had also helped pay for the signs with which Wiggs had papered the city from one end to the other.
I also looked up the five guys who were competing for Wiggs’ city commission seat, and all but one seemed rather unprepossessing. The exception was a paraplegic named Eddie Hall, who – despite his handicap – had spent nearly three decades working his way up the ladder at Publix, the local supermarket giant, before retiring. He is a lifelong advocate for the handicapped and favors diversity in Lakeland.
I shared my research with Sandra and we decided to vote for Fields and Hall. Fields lost and Hall finished dead last.
You can call me a sore loser, but I question the validity of local elections.
The top vote getter among the city commission candidates was the owner of a tow truck company, a bushy-faced gent named Ricky Shirah, who has been running for this and that for what seems like forever. He faces a run-off election with the second-place candidate, commercial Realtor Jim Malless.
What, I wonder, makes these three local businessmen the people’s choice? Why did voters reject Gow Fields and Eddie Hall?
The local paper claims the voting was influenced by an ongoing Police Department scandal that has been titillating readers for months. There were revelations of clandestine sexual encounters between male and female members of the force and other improprieties that left the local scolds wagging their tongues and pointing their fingers. (The scandal made headlines as far away as New York City.)
As a city commissioner, Wiggs was so outraged that he proposed firing the police chief, a woman named Lisa Womack, and the city manager, a guy named Doug Thomas. And, of course, the mayor had to go, too.
You might think that by electing Wiggs, local voters agree that Womack and Thomas must go, but why then did they support Shirah who favors keeping the police chief?
There’s got to be more to it than that.
I suspect that so few people vote in local elections that candidates can win just by getting their family and friends to vote. In nearby Auburndale, for example, a city commissioner was elected with 392 votes.
Wiggs won the Lakeland mayor’s job with 6,834 votes (Fields got 6,221). Shirah received 3,682 votes – nearly one-third of the total votes in the city commission race.
I couldn’t find the number of eligible voters in Lakeland but I found the city’s population and that’s close to 100,000. So you can see a lot of people didn’t bother to vote – despite the 17 political forums held during the campaign.
I suspect most of the people who take the trouble to go to the polls have little or no information on the candidates. They might vote for someone because of a friend’s recommendation perhaps, or because they saw an election sign on the way in, or simply because the name sounds vaguely familiar.
Shirah’s name certainly should be familiar. He is a perennial commission candidate for both the county and the city, and he was in the news for questionable residency status on at least one occasion. Does this sound like a reason to elect him?
If voters are so uninterested in local politics, you might wonder why we have local elections. Municipalities get their constitutional authority from the state, anyway.