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Politicians push for partisan elections

York County Republicans want candidates for school board and city offices to run in partisan elections.

Right now, candidates in those local races don't have to file with a party or declare a party affiliation as those seeking county, state and national office do.

State Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, plans to introduce legislation requiring partisan elections in York County - and statewide - when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Leading the charge locally is Glenn McCall, chairman of the York County Republican Party, who said voters need to know which party's philosophy informs their leaders' decisions.

"We need to pull the covers off and have people say who they're affiliated with," McCall said, so "folks have an idea of how they'll govern."

Republican leaders say the move would generate greater interest in local races and help familiarize voters with their candidates. Party affiliation is an important indicator of how a candidate would lead, they say.

Rock Hill City Councilman John Black agreed that partisan elections would help energize voters and candidates. But party affiliation wouldn't make much difference in how he leads, he said.

"I don't know, to me, if it matters one way or another," said Black, a conservative. "Based on my principles, I do what I'm supposed to do."

But critics say there's no place for partisanship on school boards and city councils. Such a change would inspire the same ruptures found in state and national politics and distract local leaders from their jobs.

When he approaches agencies and legislators for help, York Mayor Eddie Lee said, it's better they don't perceive him as a Democrat or a Republican. Partisan politics in local government "can be divisive and undermine our effectiveness."

"I am about as nonpartisan as an elected official can be," he said, "and I think that's very healthy."

Pros, cons of party lines

While some Republican leaders say voters will be better informed with partisan elections, others disagree.

"It's political, jersey-wearing rhetoric," said Bob Norwood, chairman of the Rock Hill School Board.

Norwood, a Republican, said in his 15 years on the school board, party affiliation never influenced his election campaigns. Instead, he said, he has focused on his experience as a school teacher, a parent of children attending public schools, and the husband of an educator.

Candidates too involved with party politics are "more like puppets than they are representatives," he said. "I would hate to see that our school boards would start lining up behind a jersey and banner," instead of doing what's best for students and the district.

"People need to trust the school board members to vote on what they feel like is best for children."

Some say voters lose out in partisan contests.

"It dumbs down the process," said Richards McCrae, chairman of the York County Democratic Party. "You don't have to waste time trying to figure out what these candidates believe in."

Partisan elections do benefit some voters because they're easier than nonpartisan elections, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University.

Party affiliation provides voters with an "intellectual shortcut," he said, indicating which candidates might share their values.

In nonpartisan elections, voters "have to elect the person, not the party," Huffmon said. As a result, Democrats can get elected in largely Republican areas and vice versa.

Pushing for partisan local elections is a tack a dominant political party would likely take, Huffmon said, and one a weaker party would likely reject.

In York County - a GOP stronghold - partisan elections would ensure that elected officials "hew to partisan philosophy," Huffmon said, and help the party build an experienced base of elected officials who will aspire to higher offices.

But instead of approaching issues based on what's good for the people, he said, candidates might bend to match their party's expectations - even if the issues aren't easily classified along party lines.

That's why school boards and city councils aren't places for partisan politics, some local leaders say.

School boards build and staff schools, and city councils provide basic services such as roads and utilities, said McCrae. He called the Republicans' move as an attempt "to weed out folks that they perceive to be 'closet' Democrats."

Necessary divisions

Norman has been asked "Why get people more divided?" in response to the plan.

"Some people call it divisive, but this is how we spend our money," he said. "You believe in the individual, or you believe in government."

With education accounting for more than one-third of the state's $6 billion budget, he said, voters "now more than ever" should know what political philosophies inform their leaders.

State Rep. John King of Rock Hill, the lone Democrat in York County's legislative delegation, said he wouldn't support changing a system that has been working well for years.

He worries that Republican school board members likely would push an agenda to privatize and "destroy" public education.

"Republicans have been in control of this state for many years and look at the state that we're in," King said. "Do we want the school board to be the same way?"

School boards and municipalities are already politicized, McCall said.

Elected officials "come on the board with a certain set of values," he said. Partisan elections would expose those values and help prevent "special interest groups" - which he identified as unions and "those that support the system" - from taking hold.

The impact on candidates would be minimal, he said.

"All you're doing is declaring who you are."