It was the summer of 1996 and I'd only been at the Daily News for a year when I was fortunate enough to latch onto the politics beat. As you'll remember, '96 was a presidential year -- Bill Clinton's re-election didn't seem at all guaranteed after some low moments in his first term, and Bob Dole was gearing up his campaign for the GOP.
My editors wanted me to cover the presidential race, but not cover it very much. The only thing that really mattered in Philadelphia, I was assured, was the mayor's race -- even though the replacement for then incumbent Ed Rendell wouldn't be picked for another three years. And it was front-page news over the next year or so when the likes of state Rep. Dwight Evans or city councilwoman Happy Fernandez jumped in that '99 race. Covering that election consumed three solid years of my life in journalism.
Philadelphia also elected a new mayor on Tuesday, its 99th. If you weren't playing close attention, you're forgiven. In the fall election, the Democrats' massive 7-1 registration edge has helped create a chicken-or-egg downward spiral. Does the ever-shrinking news media not cover general elections in Philadelphia because it knows Republicans have no chance of winning, or do GOP candidates have no chance of winning because there's such little media coverage? And the more elections that the Republican Party loses, the more it sends out unknown, underfunded candidates who -- even when they are an appealing fresh new face, as this fall's Melissa Murray Bailey was -- are certain to get buried.
What is clear is this: Philadelphia is becoming a failed state, democracy-wise. Voter turnout for the mayor's race on Tuesday was just 23.5 percent, according to the initial numbers, which is a historical low. Although a tad more competitive, even the May primary where Mayor-elect Jim Kenney broke out of the pack, was pretty much a snoozefest compared to the relative drama of past races.
But if you look closer, you'll see that one-party rule may not be the only factor. The interplay between the politics and the way that it filters down to the rank-and-file voter through the media has changed dramatically since 1996. The mantra used to be that all politics is local. No longer.
Think back to a time when people in rowhouses got the paper on their front stoop every morning (or afternoon) and hung out there every night, shooting the breeze with their neighbors, talking about the terrible trash pickup or the cops on the beat or the stench from the factory smokestacks down the street. These days, that guy -- if he even still lives in the neighborhood -- is on his couch watching Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, or down at Starbucks reading a liberal website like the Daily Kos.
Today, you'd be laughed out of the room if you said more people in Philly care about the mayor's race than a presidential election, Take a look at what happened this week in Kentucky. In a race for the open governor's seat, the GOP candidate -- a Tea Party extremist named Matt Bevin -- barely mentioned the Democrats who've held the Kentucky statehouse during the campaign. To the contrary, his statewide race was based on one thing: His deep opposition to President Obama.
Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host who used to write for The Nation, posted a thoughtful analysis this week on his Facebook page about the nationalization of state and local races. Here's an excerpt:
What we've seen is absolute decimation of local Democratic parties in red states in the Obama era. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the two principle ones seem to be: total inability of Ds to turn out voters in off year elections (KY turnout was 30%) AND the nationalization of every single election. Bevin ran ad after ad tying Conway to Obama and it worked. I joked last night on twitter that "As the old saying goes, 'All politics is national.'" And when we had Ryan Grim on he said something that's stuck with me, which is that presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire are increasingly getting questions from voters not on local issues (where are you on Ethanol?) but on big national issues, because the media they consume is national media. And it made me wonder whether the absolute evisceration of local media outlets: particularly local news papers, state house coverage, municipal investigative reporters is a big factor in contributing to this nationalization of our politics.
Two thoughts. In Philadelphia, I think this really hit home in 2003 with the mayor's race between incumbent Democrat John Street and Republican rival Sam Katz. In the heat of that election, it emerged that the FBI had bugged Street's City Hall office in a corruption probe. It was a totally legitimate thing for the FBI to do, as it turned out the Street administration was riddled by pay-to-play-style corruption. But voters were consumed with suspicion of anything coming out of federal agencies like the Justice Department, because distrust of the Bush administration was so high, thanks ot the botched war in Iraq, among other things. And so that backlash re-elected Street in a landslide.
But I also agree with Hayes that the media landscape is a huge factor, and it's a two-way street. National media lures interest, thanks to big-name stars from Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow, aided by the long trend of Big Media consolidation. But, yes, local media is shrinking. So far 2015 has been a terrible year for the press in Philadelphia, first with the shutdown of the City Paper and now with the loss of 46 journalists at Philadelphia's daily papers and Philly.com, including some of the most talented people I've ever worked with. That is going to have a big impact on how you view the world.