Election by appointment

Ruby Sinreich's picture

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?

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13 Comments

gercohen's picture

pre-1953 there were special elections to fill NCGA vacancies

Before 1952 all legislative vacancies were filled by special election as it was required by the State constitution. The 1951 session put an amendment on the ballot to eliminate the requirement, and the voters approved it. The problem prior to that is the requirement of an election eliminated representation for the area if the vacancy occurred in the several months after the election, because by the time there was a primary, second primary, and general election, 3-5 months would have passed, and thus sometimes the winner would have had to go through three rounds to win elections. The "party appoints" approach was selected as preserving the party balance of the previous election, as low turnout special elections could change the result. Any changes in the system would have to be made statewide.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

It's the voluntary mid-term resignations

Well for example, I said above that "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."I understand well the need for the expediency of appointments. And if I didn't get that before, I think Carrboro's special election this Spring made it abundantly clear to many people. I'm not objecting to the appointing, I'm objecting to the resigning. It was manipulative and unfair when Bill Strom did it a few years ago, but the stakes were much lower since he was only one of 8 Council members. And at least least he had the restraint not to publicly instruct the Council in who they should select to replace him.  Our NC House example is just the most egregious example that I know of, but I'm not a historian. There hasn't been an incumbent-less primary for that seat in fourty-one years! Doesn't that seem strange?

mghughes's picture

Appointments

After the party chose Verla to succeed Anne Barnes, Moses Carey challenged her in a primary and lost. Moses was a contender to fill the vacancy caused by Rep. Barnes's resignation. In this case the primary was a continuation of the appointment election and the results were affirmed. There are very few politicians who would be willing to go through the
appointment process to only serve the duration of a term and step aside. I have often found that party regulars often reflect the electorate of Orange County as a whole. My belief is that if there is a credible candidate to challenge an incumbent, appointed or not, then they will be successful. Eric Mansfield and Marcus Brandon and both good examples. However, they ran against incumbents where there was a groundswell of support for change. Most folks do not vote against incumbents in a primary unless given a reason. There's been very few times I've voted against an incumbent in an election.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Incumbents picking incumbents

I've been contacted by several people who told me they agreed with this post but couldn't say so publicly. This is part of the whole problem, of course. We have such a strong system of incumbency that people don't dare challenge it for fear of losing favor with those incumbents.On Sunday evening after I congratulated Valerie on her selection, I asked her if she would pledge to not resign her seat in the middle of a term. She generally agreed, with the exception of illness or special circumstances. Many people have defended Ellie's choice saying that she had unique circumstances that forced her to leave the senate early and have her replacement chosen by Democratic Party committee memebers instead of the voters of her district.I simply can't agree. There is nothing new or unusual facing Ellie that's not facing the rest of the Democrats in the NC Senate. In addition she has been saying she wanted to retire for many years, so this can't have come as a surprise. In the past, she has made her retirement contingent on the selection of a  suitable replacement, and even when many capable leaders stepped upt to the plate, she deemed them unacceptable and ran again for her seat. History: http://orangepolitics.org/2007/09/senate-candidates-lack-ovaries This year, Ellie made no secret of trying to excplicitly direct the committee on who should have her seat. I am frankly quite sick of having a handful of relatively-powerful politicians pick my representatives for me. You can count on me to ask every candidate going forward if they will pledge to stay in their seat for a full term (barring emergencies). 

James Barrett's picture

exceptions?

While I sort-of agree with you about Sen Kinnaird (just doing what she wanted and not showing up in the Senate would have been one option), I don't think a blanket statement like this is right.What about, for example, Mayor Kleinschmidt? He is now elected in odd years but if an even year seat appealed to him, I would be most supportive of his seeking higher office.  If he knew exactly what was going to happen in the even year, you could say he shouldn't run for re-election in the preceeding odd year, but who knows with certainty when those opportunities will present? And should he have a gap year in his public service assuming he will win the higher office or should he serve the year and move if/when he's in another office?  Same holds doubly-true for those elected officials in 4 year terms.I am supportive in general of appointments being biased towards those who don't plan to run for re-election.  Thus you aren't picking an incumbent, but a placeholder to serve out the term.  I think Jean Hamilton is a terrific example of how that can work extremely well (in the seat I occupy now).  Alternatively, appointments of incumbents can be useful to bring diversity to a board for people who aren't sure about running.  As I was talking with people about running for the school board this year, several were willing (and I believe quite capable) to serve but hesitant about running as a 1st time challenger. I really don't mind appointments being used to bring that additional long-term value to a board.  

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Plenty of good exceptions, but this isn't one

I'm not against appointments. I'm not against this exeutive committee or any previous appointment process. I'm also not against elected officials runing for higher offices while they are still in ofofice. I'm against resignation that is voluntarily and intentionally timed to deprive voters of their chance to select our representatives. Sometimes there is some gray area, but in this case as in Bill Strom's, there is no such lofty explanation. And this is part of a long, long pattern of such resignations in our state legislative and judicial seats going back for decades.

gercohen's picture

resignationpalooza

OK, I turned in my resignation from Chapel Hill Town council in 1979 during my second Mayoral campaign. Since my August resignation was effective December 3, it did not add another seat on the ballot.  I picked that date because if I was not elected Mayor I had decided not to continue serving on Council  I was sick and tired of it after six years, and was working in Raleigh 60 hours per week January through July and was totally exhausted.  But I did not want to be off council in August, I felt I had unfinished business (I finished third with 29% of the vote so that was the end of my running for office). I never even thought of  the issue of adding another seat to the electoral pool. It all turned out well since Joe Herzenberg was appointed to my vacancy. Interestingly, between the November election and the organizational meeting in December meeting, the Mayor-elect called and told me that they were not accepting my resignation. I told him again why I was resigning and finally told him that they could do whatever they wanted with my resignation but I wasn't coming to any more meetings. (BTW if I had been elected Mayor I planned to quit my job in Raleigh) And Mark Chilton might be the king of resignations. Think he resigned Chapel Hill Town Council in 97 to go with Quaker to her medical residency in BC Canada, then in 05 pretty sure he resigned his Carrboro Alderman seat mid-term to take the Mayor's office.  Then, if he had gotten the State Senate nod he would have resigned as Mayor three months before the end of his term. 

Ruby Sinreich's picture

History

I have a friend who is a bit of a local historian, but also didn't want to be identified for political purposes. Here's some research my friend shared with me.

Verla Insko was appointed to Chapel Hill and Carrboro's NC House seat back in 1997, when Rep. Anne Barnes resigned mid-term.  Ann, in turn, was appointed to that same seat in the early 1980's, when Trish Hunt Love resigned midterm.  Trish was originally elected in a wide-open primary (i.e. where there was no incumbent) back in 1972. That's the last time that the voters of this house district had the opportunity to select a state house representative without anyone having the advantage of incumbency - forty-one years ago!

In Judicial District 15B (Orange & Chatham), the story has been much the same with our current District Attorney (who was originally appointed instead of elected) when our then-DA Carl Fox was appointed Superior Court Judge, instead of being elected. That happened because Superior Court Judge Wade Barber retired midterm.  Barber had himself originally been appointed when his predecessor retired midterm in early 1998.

Believe it or not, I could go on, but suffice it to say that our robust local grassroots democracy in Orange County has time and again been frustrated by the intentional mid-term retirement of loyal Democrats in various state governmental elected offices. 

gercohen's picture

there was an incumbent running in 1972 I am pretty sure

actually in the 1970  election Ike Andrews and Carl Smith were elected in the two seat Orange/Chatham House district. Ike did not seek re-election in 1972 because he ran and won in the 4th Congressional District. I am almost positive that Carl Smith ran in the Democratic primary in 1972 and lost. Trish Stanford (then Hunt, then Love) and Ed Holmes won the nominations.  Pete Tripodi, a 21-year old UNC junior also ran. I remember this well as I actually announced my candidacy for that seat in October 1971 then dropped out in December, before filling even opened. I remember going to talk to Carl Smith late 1971 about the upcoming campaign. Pete met an awful end two years later, killing himself on top of his girlfriend's grave in Burlington.http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/1972jan?pg=17#pg17