Runoffs, this instant

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Last month, one of my brightest former students came to see me; she was disillusioned. After some time working for Detroit City Council, she was navigating between cynicism and despair. “I think I better get out of this before I become the ashtray man,” she sighed.

Gil Hill, she explained, had an aide whose sole apparent purpose was to follow him around with an ashtray. Later, at a reception, I saw what she meant. The Beverly Hills bit player in decline, surrounded by hangers-on, was not an inspiring picture.

But he was, so I thought, our once and future councilman. Well, guess what? Time to eat dead crow, hopefully without a side of West Nile. I was as wrong as anyone about last week’s special election. I assumed that the Gilster was a shoo-in, given his name recognition, money, endorsement by the mayor, a turnout certain to be tiny, and the fact that he had run far ahead of JoAnn Watson in last month’s primary.

Yet she won, clearly if narrowly, with 52 percent.

Instant analysis is always suspect, but what apparently happened is that Hill’s primary plurality (40 percent) masked the fact that the majority wanted somebody new.

What impact Watson, junior member on a nine-person council, can have is far from clear, despite a lot of talk of her “breaking a four-four deadlock” between supporters and opponents of the mayor. Nor, for that matter, are her goals completely clear, although doing Kwame Kilpatrick any favors is presumably not a priority.

And though she is a former executive director of the Detroit NAACP, it is not even clear how politically sophisticated she is. During one joint appearance, she appeared not to understand why the Republican-controlled Legislature wanted to move up the election to decide the future of Detroit’s school board. Republicans, who couldn’t care less about Detroit schools, want to keep city turnout down in November 2004.

Yet she has standing and a track record, and may bring some badly needed new vision. Her election may prove I was wrong about another issue too. I had thought it was a horrendous waste of money to hold these two special elections, which came about after Brenda Scott died after complications from stomach surgery last year.

I thought the mayor should have been permitted to nominate an interim candidate who would then be confirmed or rejected by council. But in that case, we would probably have gotten Gil Hill. Instead, we got democracy and the people’s choice of a kind, even if the vast majority of registered voters never showed up.

But what might have been worth a try in this case — and in all our elections — is the one genuinely brilliant idea the Green Party has been advocating: Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV for short.

In its simplest form, Instant Runoff Voting, which has been adopted in San Francisco, works like this. When you vote, you rank the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate gets a majority, then the “second choice” votes are added to their total, till someone has more than half. What this would do is allow new ideas to flourish, give new parties a chance to be relevant — and still preserve our present system.

For the last 200 years, minor parties have been doomed to short lives and ultimate failure. The most they have ever done is introduce a new idea or two into the national debate. If it catches fire, their idea is inevitably taken over (and watered down) by one of the major parties, and in a short time the third party disappears. Thanks to the vast sums of money now needed to run for any office, third parties have less chance than ever.

Tom Ness, who runs the Green House in Ferndale, sort of a combination lecture hall, salon and cultural center for metro-area Greens, has been sensibly starting small, trying to get Ferndale to adopt IRV for local elections. Tom Barwin, Ferndale’s city manager, told me he agreed that it is an interesting idea.

Neither major party is likely to be hot for it. Democrats should be, since if we’d had IRV for presidential elections, George Dubya now would be making speeches to the tumbleweeds and declaring pre-emptive war on the sagebrush. But most of the time, the party hacks are more interested in keeping control than winning elections.

Ditto the Republicans, many of whom are actively hostile to intelligent thought, with the exception of a few honorable ones like John McCain, who likes the idea of IRV.

This could make voting meaningful again. But we are going to have to be prepared to fight for years, and fight intelligently, picking our battles.

Speaking of which — the legendary Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Texas Observer and one of the nation’s strongest progressive voices, spoke at the Green House a couple weeks ago, and brought a message the Greens mostly didn’t want to hear. Don’t run a candidate for president next year, he told them. The nation simply can’t afford it.

They ought to realize how right that was. Democrats need to recognize that the Greens had every right to run Ralph Nader last time. Nobody could have foreseen Florida.

However, this time we have a case where our civil liberties and what we stand for as a nation, at home and abroad, are very much at stake. Nobody whose eyes aren’t independently spinning can rationally argue that any Democrat would be worse.

That doesn’t mean the Greens shouldn’t try to influence the process and the candidate — participating in Democratic caucuses and primaries being just one of those ways. But this time, the choice is clear. It is no longer a case of the lesser of two evils. Rather, we all may have to swallow hard and work even harder for the lesser. Especially if that’s the only way to avoid renewing the evil.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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