Carmel voted Tuesday, and it would be hard to find an election where the battle lines were more clear or the outcome more decisive.
Mayor James Brainard was shooting for his 6th term. He faced probably his stiffest challenge ever in City Council President Rick Sharp. Sharp had a significant war chest. I’m not privy to how much each spent, but Sharp reportedly spent in the vicinity of $150,000. Brainard’s outlay certainly was at least three or four times that. You couldn’t watch the Fox evening news (popular in such a GOP stronghold) without being pounded by “Our City–Our Mayor–Our Future” Brainard commercials.
There was only one issue. Sharp argued that Brainard had mortgaged the city’s future with his glitzy “development” projects and $1 billion in debt financed with shaky projections of “Tax Increment” revenue. Property taxpayers, he said, were going to be clobbered when this house of cards collapsed. Brainard needed to be reined in before this borrow-and-spend binge got even worse (disclosure: My opinion is that Sharp is correct. I wrote articles for a website supporting Sharp’s position).
Brainard said this was nonsense. Property taxes hadn’t gone up much (“yet”, I might add editorially). Carmel’s credit rating was “raised during the Recession”. And aren’t the Performing Arts Center, those cute statues in the Arts and Design District and Keystone Parkway really neat. Brainard doubled down by also asking the voters to send him a new City Council and a new Clerk-Treasurer. The old council had developed a working 4-3 majority skeptical of Brainard’s Vision.
Brainard won. He won big. When one drills down into the numbers, two conclusions are apparent:
1. All that campaign spending did drive up turnout. But Sharp didn’t convince those new voters that Brainard is on the wrong track. Not even close.
Brainard in his previous campaigns traditionally has received about 62% of the vote. This time Brainard got…about 62% of the vote. In 2011, 12,475 people voted in the mayor’s race. 62.0% went for Brainard. This time, 15,230 showed up (2,755 or 22% more). Remarkably, 9,584 or 61.6% went for Brainard. In other words, of those extra 2,755 people who went to the polls thinking that yes, indeed, maybe my city’s future is at stake, the usual five-eights bought the Mayor’s pitch. Sharp’s message was prospective. Namely, you haven’t been asked to pay for all the Mayor’s cool stuff yet, but you will. Brainard’s pitch that you haven’t been asked to pay for all my cool stuff–with an implication that it’s free and costless and you never will be asked to pay–carried the day. Voters apparently don’t react until something actually hits them in the wallet.
2. Those extra voters went even more heavily for Brainard’s City Council slate.
Brainard heavily publicized his named “slate” for City Council and Clerk-Treasurer. All but one of them won. What was a 4-3 Council questioning some of Brainard’s activities is now solidly 6-1 to approve pretty much whatever he wants to do in the future. And what was previously a Clerk-Treasurer who asked questions about some of Brainard’s bills she was asked to approve has been replaced by a Brainard ally.
Sharp, of course, had allies running for Council seats. Either because he didn’t have enough money or didn’t want to muddy his message, he didn’t ask the voters to support them.
As a result, the City Council is now six-to-one for pretty much whatever Brainard wants to do . Sharp, of course, gave up his Council seat to run for Mayor. In one other Council district, all of the new voters ditched a Brainard critic and went for the Brainard candidate. Go figure. In another, 0f 485 new voters 395 supported the Brainard slatee in lieu of another Brainard critic.
Clearly, all or an outsized chunk of the new voters who voted for Sharp (the 3/8ths of them who did) also voted to oust incumbent councilors who would have been Sharp-friendly. This bizarre outcome is difficult to explain. I can only conclude that Sharp persuaded them enough to motivate them to vote for him, but when in the voting booth, as a result of Brainard’s ads for his slate, the only councilor name they could remember was the one they had heard.
In any case,Mayor Brainard had a big night. He won an election in which the choices were clear and the electorate could be under no illusion about what they were voting for. That’s what elections should be about. He now has a clear path–a 6-1 Council majority, a friendly Clerk-Treasurer, and a mandate–to go forward on the path he has chosen for Carmel. I congratulate him. The People have Spoken.
I just can’t help but recall those immortal words from George Washington Plunkett of the old Tammany Hall New York City political machine: “The People Have Spoken! Damn Them!'”