This year’s municipal elections proved that big changes are possible — when voters actually show up
If we learned anything from the recent municipal elections, it’s two things. One: When the Legislature passed and Governor Steve Sisolak signed a bill to move municipal elections to be held in conjunction with the federal, state, and county elections in even-numbered years, they did something wonderful. Two: When more participate, the results can be staggering.
Las Vegans elected three new City Council members with a voter turnout of just over 10 percent. To show the diversity of that turnout, they chose the first Latina (Olivia Diaz) and first openly LGBTQ person (Brian Knudsen) — and a former state senator who earned a reputation in Carson City as one of the Legislature’s farthest-right members.
In the closest race, in Ward 3, former Assemblywoman Diaz defeated Melissa Clary, a former city planner now with the federal Veteran Affairs Department. By a 1,359 to 1,285 (51.4 to 48.6 percent) margin, Diaz succeeds Bob Coffin, who retired after two terms. In Ward 1, former city employee Knudsen defeated Robin Munier, 2,191 to 1,943 (53 to 47 percent) to succeed the term-limited Lois Tarkanian, for whom Munier had worked.
Or to put it another way, in wards where Democrats far outnumbered Republicans, they had well-qualified candidates and chose the ones who more closely fit the Democratic coalition.
In Ward 2, where Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans but nonpartisans and Independent Americans tend to tilt it to the right, Republican Victoria Seaman won almost 40 percent of the vote (with former GOP assemblywoman Valerie Weber taking more than 16 percent) over the lone Democrat in the race, Hilarie Grey, a longtime communications professional in the public and private sectors who won more than 31 percent. They were all on the ballot in a special election to replace Steve Seroka, who resigned less than two years after defeating Bob Beers, mainly over Beers’ support for the controversial development of the Queensridge golf course.
All of which unquestionably affects how the Las Vegas City Council and its city function, but the question is how. Diaz and Coffin may not differ too much, but Knudsen is likely to be to Tarkanian’s left.
Seaman had strong Republican and developer support, as well as from the builders’ union, which has flexed its political muscles for and against candidates on the question of whether they are all-out for development (last year, the union almost defeated Tick Segerblom in the Clark County Commission primary because he had voted against the Raiders’ stadium project). Seaman is much closer ideologically to Beers than to Seroka, and is a close friend and ally of another right-wing legislator-turned-councilwoman, Michele Fiore. Developers figure to have a happier time with the two of them. By contrast, Grey’s Culinary support was helpful, but not so much in turning out voters, since more of the Culinary members live in the other two wards.
North Las Vegas had only one race and, as tradition demands, made it more controversial than it might have been. Richard Cherchio won the general election after a primary in which his colleague, Mayor John Lee, opposed his reelection, then sat out the general. Cherchio won with just under a 10 percent turnout.
Turnout in Boulder City topped 45 percent, and a sea change resulted. Mayor Rod Woodbury, a Republican seeking a second term and the son of former Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, lost to City Councilman Kiernan McManus. Incumbent Council members Peggy Leavitt and Rich Shuman lost their reelection bids to James Howard Adams and Claudia Bridges.
The campaigning featured the kind of nastiness that infects politics at most levels but can be especially noticeable in a small city, as Boulder City is. Woodbury’s opponents charged him with claiming credit for things he didn’t do, and Woodbury’s allies charged McManus with being a liberal Democrat who supports transgender rights and abortion on demand.
Politically and historically, Boulder City has trended closer to Woodbury and his fellow council members than to McManus. All of which suggests Boulder City residents looked at what the council members did, especially with local development and historic preservation, and concluded that those they elected could do it better, and resented the tone of the incumbents’ campaign.
At least Boulder City voters showed up. In Las Vegas, the highest rate of turnout was in the Ward 2 scrum, where both sides ran more party-oriented campaigns — as the Boulder City candidates did. But in Las Vegas, barely one-tenth of the voting population made the decisions. In the wake of county turnout of nearly 60 percent in the 2018 general election and more than 75 percent in 2016, the move to even-numbered years undoubtedly will involve more city dwellers in choosing their elected officials — and they might just turn the world upside down.