Seventy years ago, Lyndon Johnson won his Texas senate seat by fewer than 100 votes. Last week, Geoff Ellsworth similarly won our mayoral contest by a couple of dozen votes. The two elections diverge at that point: Johnson’s electoral battle was characterized by voter fraud and corruption, while our contest can only be criticized for its slow count.
Johnson was soon given the moniker “Landslide Lyndon,” but then strove mightily for the next dozen years to build a record of legislative accomplishment. Perhaps our Mayor Geoff may come to be known as “Knife-Edge Ellsworth.” His term will commence in an equally divided city.
Our contest was a battle between the practical and the visionary. In its unanimous endorsement of Alan Galbraith, the editorial board of this newspaper observed that “Ellsworth tends to think in terms of how we would like St. Helena to be, while Galbraith sees it as it is.” They liked the incumbent’s “process-oriented approach” and accused his challenger of “wishful thinking.” In sum, what the voters faced were two very different approaches to municipal leadership.
Why then did a slight majority choose Ellsworth? Perhaps they were following the guidance of Winston Churchill when he said that in governing there is “no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook.” That means having a vision of where we’re headed, and that’s what St. Helena in the end voted for.
That Ellsworth won, even with just a bare plurality, is remarkable. Aside from the Star, what passes for our political establishment was solidly against him. As Galbraith rightfully boasted in his concession statement, he had the endorsement of Congressman Mike Thompson, Supervisor Dillon, all her supervisorial colleagues and all of Napa’s mayors. That means Ellsworth can start off feeling liberated — he owes these power brokers absolutely nothing.
We can thank both candidates for their good behavior during the infernal and seemingly interminable vote count. Ellsworth never claimed victory and Galbraith had the grace to concede without waiting for the final, official results. What wasn’t good, of course, was the voter tally, which could drag on until December. We all should be embarrassed; we’re looking as bad as Florida.
After public safety, there is no more important government mission than the proper conduct of elections; that’s how democracy is defined. Before the 2020 election, Napa must change how we do things.
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First, remove elections out from under the control of Assessor John Tuteur. Make it a self-standing county department reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors. Then, increase its funding. According to reports in the Register and the Star, the Election Division needs larger facilities, more staff and new equipment. Tuteur should have been banging his desk demanding all three. He didn’t.
What he did do was eliminate polling stations throughout the county. He has been one of the leaders in California’s move towards mail-in ballots. We should change that and create at least one polling station in each town, so that voters can have a choice in how they cast their ballots. In the newspaper reports, Tuteur admitted that counties with polling stations report results more quickly.
But this problem goes beyond slow counts. Among major industrialized countries, the U.S. is notorious for lower voter turnout. For years, this column has argued for giving more options to voters so that we can choose whether we want to vote by mail or machine. That’s how we’ll bring in more voters.
In conversations with Ellsworth, he’s clearly aware of his very slim margin of victory. To gain the confidence of the almost half the voters who didn’t support him, he’ll need to demonstrate leadership fast. When he takes over, he says, “I want to do a few things at once – downtown revitalization and housing. Then, the water situation.” For years, he’s focused on our water problems and we should expect him to move quickly on pricing and contracts.
Sitting with him at council meetings will be new member Anna Chouteau, who garnered more votes than any other candidate in our local election. She tells me her priorities harken back to the SHAPE Committee, on which she served as Vice Chair: “I want to focus on rebuilding City Hall. We’re also going to be looking at the Library’s needs for the future and facilities for Parks & Rec. And we have to keep focusing on Main Street; that’s equally important.”
In moving forward on our city’s problems, Churchill can provide encouragement to Ellsworth, Chouteau, and their colleagues: “Don’t argue the matter; the difficulties will argue for themselves.”