Voters who like to do their homework before Election Day and read the whole ballot while voting might need to set aside a little more time this fall to get to know the candidates.
All but a handful of Miami Valley races are competitive — some drawing their largest fields in years. And most of the names are new to local politics.
Local tea party groups and the Montgomery County Republican Party take credit for many of the new faces knocking on doors and speaking at candidates’ forums. Dayton Tea Party President Don Birdsall said groups like his might have started as “gripe sessions,” but they’re now turning complaints into change through positions on local boards and councils.
“People have realized that going to a rally and making noise is therapeutic, but it doesn’t change much,” Birdsall said. “I think people are choosing to get involved at the local level because they’ve seen us put in some hard work on national campaigns that didn’t turn out the way we wanted to.”
Birdsall said his group is backing about a dozen candidates across the Miami Valley. He said one of the priorities of tea party and liberty groups is to encourage candidates and raise awareness about voting, especially on local issues where citizens have the most direct impact.
Birdsall said they pointed possible candidates toward candidate training such as workshops offered by groups such as American Majority, a national nonprofit that provides political training for conservative candidates. The workshops teach how to build a website and use social media, canvass a neighborhood and otherwise get out the vote.
Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Rob Scott said one of his goals when he took over as chairman in April 2012 was to focus the county party more on local races.
The party offered free candidate information sessions for the first time, Scott said, and in the past the party had charged for similar services. The first session helped people learn more about the candidate process and how to file paperwork with county boards of elections offices. The second session, for certified candidates, went over the nuts and bolts of organizing a campaign and basic strategy.
“We’ve had lot of new people come into the party,” said Scott, who founded the Dayton Tea Party before he was elected to Kettering City Council. He resigned from his post in September after facing pressure from longtime party officials. “We recruited from pro-life groups, churches, tea party, people that really got engaged in the party last year because of the presidential race and U.S. Senate race.”
Scott said he personally spoke with about 40 interested candidates and most decided to run.
“Local government is a good stepping stone so down the road as a state representative position becomes available, we’re going to have a great crop of people we’ve been able to get elected from city or township level that could move onto a higher office,” Scott said.
Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Owens said tea party candidates have had some success getting elected to local office but have failed to truly represent their constituents, such as the tea-party-led Springboro School Board’s push to teach creationism and a controversial constitution class.
“Frankly, part of it is seeing their philosophy when they get into local government and how they mess that up,” Owens said. “We’ve been able to have candidates out there in places where they’ve successfully gotten into office. We’re already seeing push back, people saying, ‘We don’t want this.’”
Jim Silko ran for Englewood City Council two years ago and was sitting on the fence about running again when Scott said more Republicans were needed to run.
“It was a very important education of heartbreak and how the political process runs,” Silko said about his first race, which he lost by only a handful of votes.
Silko participated in the party candidate training and said he walked away with useful ideas and strategy for his campaign.
“I felt more emboldened,” he said. “I ran a grassroots campaign the first time, with no guidance at all. I was a new kid on the block.”
Silko said he’s not a tea party candidate but respects Scott and others who lend those views and opinions to the Republican party.
Owens said some pockets of the Miami Valley have more candidates than past years but many others don’t. He said a community’s needs and controversies, such as the Austin Boulevard developments, are just as responsible for an increase in candidates.
“All politics is local, Owens said. “It’s the local issues that drive where the people want to get up and run.
A sense of civic duty inspired Sheila Stanifer to run for Perry Township trustee. Stanifer said she’s thought about running for years
“I don’t like the direction our country is going and I thought I could make a difference in our neighborhood here,” Stanifer said. “This year, where we are in our country as far as our indebtedness as a nation, I think it’s important to be personally involved.”
Stanifer faces two incumbents and three other candidates for two trustee spots. She said she’s learning more about her community’s needs by going door-to-door and talking with residents, some of whom say they’ve never been visited by a trustee before.
Birdsall said that’s what the tea party and other liberty groups hope to accomplish.
“As polarized as this country is, you’re not going to appease everyone, but you hope a new face and name might make a difference in your community,” Birdsall said. “People who have never stuck their neck out before are getting in the public arena and that’s exciting.”