Fiery letters to the editor. Stolen lawn signs. Backdoor donations and party-affiliated door-knocking.
The polarizing tone of the 2016 presidential election has seeped into local government races, which are legally nonpartisan.
According to candidates and observers, voters have probed the party affiliation of down-ballot candidates even though their issues — such as fracking, housing or property taxes — are generally considered as free of partisanship. The targeted City Council or County Board candidates must then decide whether to join or avoid the political fray.
Ann Lindstrom, intergovernmental relations representative at the League of Minnesota Cities, said such partisan seepage into local races isn’t that unusual in a presidential election year.
“We’re seeing [partisanship] trickle down a little bit more into the local races,” she said. “With a presidential race going on, that makes everybody pay more attention to politics than the midterm election.”
In the Twin Cities’ seven-county metro area, questions about party affiliation have popped up during door-knocking, or when local candidates caucus for national candidates. Or they’ve arisen when parties contribute money or supply campaign volunteers, or when they endorse or support a local candidate.
In some cases, the high-profile presidential race has been a way to draw voter attention to smaller races.
In Prior Lake, Mayor Ken Hedberg is seeking re-election against challenger Kirt Briggs, and four City Council candidates are running for two open seats.
Resident Mike Rothmeyer, 63, spent $500 on two ads in the local newspaper because, he said, he’s felt jilted over taxes and road construction during Hedberg’s term. His ads support Briggs, along with council candidates Dave Thompson and Zach Braid.
The ad: “Fellow Prior Lake residents. This is a hard decision. Donald or Hillary?” The next line reads, “This is an easy decision! Briggs for Mayor. Braid & Thompson for City Council.”
While Briggs said voters have asked which presidential candidate he supports, Hedberg said there’s no parallel between the local and the Trump-Clinton races.
“It’s a tough choice,” Hedberg said of the national race. “But I stay a million miles away from it, because we are in nonpartisan positions. In local elections, it’s not relevant.”
When a candidate knocks on a door, questions in a voter’s mind can jump from MNsure to road construction to any number of other things, according to Mary Liz Holberg, a Dakota County commissioner whose term expires in 2018. “And voters don’t only want to hear that you’re not taking sides,” said Holberg, who also served as Lakeville’s mayor.
Partisan politics can become embedded in the perception of a candidate, regardless of his or her platform, Holberg said. “This country is so divided. If you’re a local candidate on a no-taxes platform, I think the average voter would construe that to mean that you’re a conservative and a Republican,” she said.
Barbara Marschall, a 20-year veteran of the Scott County Board, is facing challenger Dave Beer. She said she’s noticed heightened party affiliation in local government races and thinks it’s a bad idea to seek party endorsement.
“People, at least around here, feel [partisanship] doesn’t belong in our local races,” Marschall said. “They’d like it to be nonpartisan, people they know, people in their community.”
She added: “I really wish [partisan division] wasn’t happening. I think we’re taking a step in the wrong direction. I have supporters and friends on both sides of party politics.”
But there’s a bright side: Voters’ frustration with the top of the ballot could shift their attention to the bottom.
“Here’s a respite,” Lindstrom said. “Maybe if you’re burnt out on the federal and state level, you can see what it’s like locally.”