It was the year of the incumbent at Rochester's local level, but why?
There were strong voices of discontent leading up to the midterms, but Rochester-area voters stayed with the status quo and the incumbent.
ROCHESTER — Who knew that voters were so content and satisfied with the way things were going?
Happy. Happy. Happy.
How else to explain the fact that it was the incumbent who reigned supreme in the midterm elections ?
It was true at the state level, where all of the incumbents for statewide and congressional office were elected. And it was true at the local level, where incumbents for Rochester School Board, Rochester City Council and Olmsted County Board of Commissioners all prevailed. It was true for Rochester's mayor and Olmsted County's attorney.
Call it the year of the familiar face.
If you were an incumbent or incumbent-endorsed or graced with a familiar name, your path to local political office was practically guaranteed. This despite the fact that the voices of discontent and grievance were as loud and insistent at the local level leading to the midterm elections as they had ever been.
And yet just like the red wave many political observers anticipated sweeping the country never materialized, so too at the local level were voters given the opportunity to take the community in a very different direction and yet took a pass.
But at the local level, there were different factors that boosted local incumbents.
Why did the incumbent do so well? Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who won a second four-year term, said she believes that despite the difficulty of the last few years, people knew that “those who were serving were doing their best to protect people.”
When indoor dining was shut down at the state level and mask mandates imposed at the city level to curb the pandemic, many were upset at these government-imposed impositions. The election gave the discontented an opportunity to register their disapproval. But they didn’t.
“In the heat of the moment, who you hear from are the people that are dissatisfied,” Norton said. “I never questioned the decisions that I made, because I knew I was making them for the right reasons to protect the community. But I also knew that there were people that were very upset, and they were very vocal.”
Norton said the objective was to save lives and protect the economy. Even so, an estimated 200 people in Olmsted County died from the COVID-19 pandemic, Norton said.
People angry at the mandates blamed her and other politicians who took similar actions to contain the virus. But Norton says she never bought into the narrative that underpinned their criticisms. Her critics believed that it was the mandates, not the virus, that was stifling businesses and economic activity. Norton believed the opposite. It was the virus that was the culprit.
Even so, the midterms presented voters with a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the mandates, the economy and the overall direction of the community. Going into the election, Norton says she was unsure how it would all play out.
“From my perspective, the economy was being hurt because people were afraid and staying home to protect themselves,” Norton said. “But you just didn’t know how many people in the long run were upset about masking” and economic-related issues.
At the school board level, voters were given the opportunity to take the Rochester School District into a different direction when a slate of four conservative candidates ran as a bloc. Again, voters stayed with what they knew.
Jean Marvin, who won a third term on the Rochester school board, said she is convinced that if the four conservative candidates had run individually rather than as a bloc, the outcome could have been different. All four were defeated by three incumbents and first-time candidate Justin Clark, who was endorsed by the outgoing member of the board at that seat.
“It could have very well gone in a different direction, but they had a well-organized, unified campaign with a message that either didn’t resonate or that downright scared folks,” Marvin said.
Marvin said she ran for school board again to preempt the possibility of a conservative takeover of the board that she felt would have caused the district to grind to a halt. She said her beef with the conservative bloc wasn’t that they had different ideas, but that she believed their ideas about what was going on in Rochester schools were not rooted in fact.
“It just became more and more clear that the slate had a very strong perspective, but it wasn’t based in fact,” Marvin said. “It’s easy to find the social media sources that they were getting it from, but the picture they were painting about what was going on in our schools wasn’t true.”
One idea perpetuated and posted on social media by the conservative side was that classroom discussion today is dominated by race and gender propaganda. Students saw those postings and thought they were “crazy” because it wasn’t true, Marvin said.
The same was true with the idea that students take kitty litter boxes to school, an idea that was circulated by some conservative politicians and candidates but has been repeatedly debunked.
“There’s so many things posted that simply hadn’t been verified,” Marvin said.
Dave Senjem was elected to the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners after a 20-year stretch as a state senator and 10-year stint on the Rochester City Council.
Senjem said it’s rare for a local incumbent, whether on school board, city council or county commission, to be ousted from his or her seat. It usually takes a titanic local issue where there is vehement disagreement to cause a person to lose their seat.
“I would say it’s hard to lose an election,” Senjem said. “For the most part, at the local level, if you’re doing the good work, if you’re reaching out to constituents, you’re generally speaking normal, you’re going to be fine."