Come back with me to the summer of 2009. Filing just ended for the Chapel Hill Town Council and Mayoral races when powerhouse Council Member Bill Strom suddenly announced he was resigning and moving to New York. Strom was called "Machiavellian" and much worse.
First it was just the typical Strom haters that accused him of attempting to manipulate the process by waiting until just after the filing period, so that his replacement could be chosen by his friends on the Town Council. Strom himself claimed the timing was purely accidental. However, in the following weeks information trickled out showing that Strom’s actions were every bit as intentional as they looked to the skeptics.
Once again people cried out against the appointment process and called for democratic election of a mid-term replacement. Having seen this happen many times, I found myself defending the appointment process as the most efficient way to keep the town running without the huge expense of special elections. (Remember how well that worked in Carrboro after a similar outcry?)
As a frequent defender of this type of appointment, I must point out that while it is effective and can be fair, it should only be done in moderation. In the case of a municipal official that sits at the table with several colleagues, one appointment every few years amounts to a small chink in the armor of democracy.
However, appointments have also been used all too often to fill state governmental elected offices from Orange County. These are offices that are then held for at least a decade until usually the legislator resigns so that the local parties can select the next incumbent. For example in State House district 56 (currently held by Verla Insko), the last time there was an open primary without an incumbent was in 1972! This has also happened persistently in our Senate and Judicial districts.
Combined with such long tenure in these seats, this truly amounts to the voters having very little control over who represents us in the General Assembly. We have been incredibly fortunate to be blessed with such progressive and pragmatic leaders in our delegation. Ellie Kinnaird is among the best examples of this, doing our district proud and holding her principled banner high in Raleigh for so many years. But she has long held the idea that she could (and should) select her replacement. This is where I part ways with her.
I wonder who would represent us if they were selected in a competitive Democratic primary? How might they govern differently if they were forced to convince voters without the power of incumbency? And when will we have the opportunity to find out?