Fewer candidates filing to run for office

ALPENA — The purpose of an election is to allow residents an opportunity to select among several candidates and vote for the one they believe shares their view on issues or is best qualified.

In the past several years, however, there are fewer candidates filing for elected positions. That leaves voters little or no choice on who will be their voice in government.

In Northeast Michigan it is not uncommon to see elected officials run unopposed or have only one opponent.

Next week residents in Alpena will vote to fill a pair of open seats on Alpena Municipal Council, but there will be only one name on the ballot. A pool of four write-in candidates filed after the deadline, but their names are not in print and voters must write in a vote for them.

Alpena Clerk/Treasurer Karen Hebert, who has seen many council members come and go over the years, said the amount of work and time required to be on council is something not many people are willing to commit to today.

“I just think people are busy with family and everything else that is going on in their lives,” Hebert said. “It’s a big commitment. A term lasts four years and that is a long time. I don’t think there are many people who are willing to commit for that long.”

Hebert said she doesn’t believe the ill will toward federal government officials has dampened people’s spirits about local government. She said she doesn’t believe it is the cause of fewer people seeking public office. She said there have been fewer people filing to run for office for a number of years.

“I do think people have issues with how unethical things have been and some might have a level of distrust, but this was a problem before this administration even came into power. It’s been happening for some time,” she said.

Alpena Community College political science and history instructor Tim Kuehnlein said there are many reasons he suspects people are shying away from running for office.

He said a fear of failure and ridicule is one. He said in the age of social media losing an election or voting on an issue can be spread quickly and both positive and negative reactions shared. He said it is easier for an elected official to be called to task, but it also opens them up to more personal attacks.

“There is a fear of getting sucked into something beyond what your basic responsibility is,” Kuehnlein said. “People are more afraid to take risks and step outside of themselves because they fear embarrassment. We need to begin to see more people taking these risks, or we will all suffer. We can’t bow to fear, risk and embarrassment.”

Alpena County Clerk Bonnie Friedrichs has been clerk for 17 years and worked in the office on election nights since 1980. She said in terms of county elections, the number of candidates is about the same as it was over the years. She said being an elected official requires a great deal of time and work and not everyone can commit to it. She said she believes many people don’t want to deal with the stress and controversy that can come when voting on important issues.

Friedrichs said it is not uncommon to have a commissioner, prosecutor or clerk like herself, run unopposed. She said that can be a good thing in some instances, but also could create problems, depending who the incumbent is.

“If you have a good, hardworking official, doing a good job another candidate would split the vote and you could lose him or her,” Friedrichs said. “On the flip side you could end up with someone who doesn’t put in the same work and just goes through the same effort. Ultimately it is up to the voters and people to determine if someone needs to replaced or they are doing a good job.”

Another factor that could be in play is the pay.

Elected officials work long hours and attend many meetings. They also make themselves available to their constituents who may have questions or concerns. Many times commissioners and members of councils work full- or part-time jobs as well. For many potential candidates adding the pressure and responsibility to an already cramped schedule for little pay isn’t worth it.

Alpena County commissioners make $8,150 a year, while council members make $5,000. The mayor makes $7,000.

Kuehnlein said increasing pay as an incentive to attract more candidates is not a good idea because there would be those who do it strickly for that reason and may not serve for the right reason.

Hebert said typically people who run for office do so not because of the salary but because of the passion they have to make local municipalities better. She said increasing wages could dilute the candidate pool with people who are trying to get into local politics for the wrong reasons.

“We want people who want to make a difference,” she said. “The money may not be the best, but it should not be the driving factor someone chooses to run.”

First Congressional District Republican Committee Chairman Jesse Osmer said at the state and national level there is a deep bench of candidates for state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. He said typically state reps who have reached their term limit seek Senate seats. State senators often explore running to House seats in Washington, Osmer said. The trouble, Osmer said, is trying to find people to run for House seats as they are vacated.

“We are having a harder time finding new blood,” Osmer said. “If a person has a choice between starting a career, enjoying retirement or getting into politics what are most likely to choose?”

Osmer said when there are a lot of candidates on the ballot, it indicates people may not be pleased with how things are being run. He used the 2016 Alpena Township elections as an example.

Osmer said there were many residents who had become frustrated with the former administration and candidates filed to run for all of the trustee seats, as well as supervisor, clerk and treasurer. He said the opposite can be true as well. When people are pleased with the work of the public officials, they are less likely to want them challenged.

“If things are going well people tend to think ‘If it isn’t broken, why try to fix it,'” Osmer said. “If the people believe they are doing a good job, fewer people will run against them.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews.