By Gail Collins
November 2, 1999
Happy Election Day,
I don't know about you, but here in New York City we have a lot
of interesting decisions to make today, on issues ranging from
charter revision to the identity of the next Staten Island district
attorney. Voter participation is expected to climb into the double
This is an off year for New York politics. But in Kentucky
they're having an election for governor, and the incumbent, Paul
Patton, still appears to be worried that nobody will show up to
vote. Mr. Patton is being challenged by a Republican named Peppy
Martin, who made a splash the other day by saying that the
governor's wife's first husband had been "assassinated." (The
Republican chairwoman apologized on behalf of the party.) Voters who
find Ms. Martin a little intense have a third option in the Reform
slate, whose gubernatorial hopeful likes to introduce the candidate
for lieutenant governor as "Kathy Lyons, my running mate and
Personally, I'd rather be voting in Mississippi, where the polls
show a really close race to succeed Gov. Kirk Fordice, who has been
involved in an ongoing struggle to dump his wife of 44 years and
marry the woman who had been his girlfriend in high school. Need I
tell you that this has turned out to be a family-values election?
Each of the gubernatorial candidates has been vying to prove that he
is the least likely to take a state plane to the beach for a date
with his inamorata or get involved with a struggle over how to evict
his spouse from the governor's mansion.
Now that's the kind of issue that could liven up a political
campaign, but those of us who live in safe districts dominated by
one party hardly ever get that sort of excitement. I remember one
year in which our Congressman's main challenger was a convicted
arsonist, but the more typical story is Venerable Incumbent vs.
Underfunded Hopeless Newcomer.
I want to live in a place like Virginia Beach, Va., which is
presently the site of a very hot race for the state legislature.
"I've gotten at least three hold-for-a-message-from-the-governor
calls and three pieces of mail a day," says Karen Jones Squires, a
local voter. The two candidates in her district are expected to
spend up to a million dollars to win a job that pays $18,000 a
Now when it comes to state legislatures, I am extremely well
informed -- i.e., I know the name of the guy who represents my
district. But all my expertise goes for naught, because in my
neighborhood the incumbent legislator always wins, frequently
through the cunning tactic of being the only name on the ballot.
That's pretty typical. The real dirty little secret of American
democracy is how many of our elections are really nothing of the
sort, because the districts are drawn to give one party or the other
an enormous advantage. About 80 members of Congress had no major
party rival last year, including 18 of the 23 House seats in
In Virginia, where 8 of 11 Congressional races were uncontested
last year, the Democrats are now in danger of losing their control
over the state legislature. That would mean the Republicans could
redraw the district lines next year so more of their candidates
could win the meaningless, uncontested contests. "The entire future
of Virginia will be decided in these elections," hyperventilated
Gov. James Gilmore.
Actually, even the battle for gerrymandering rights is fixed in
most Virginia districts -- 61 out of 100 seats in the House of
Delegates are basically uncontested, and almost all the others are
shoo-ins. If I lived there, I'd be really disappointed if my
neighbor got to decide the entire future of Virginia while I got
stuck with a race with only one name on the ballot. But people seem
pretty philosophical. "Four years ago our senator worked hard to
win, and the sentiment is that it's nice to see that this year he
doesn't have to spend his time and money getting re-elected," said
Robert Rummells, a Virginia Beach Republican.
Ms. Jones Squires, on the other hand, has had enough attention.
"It was interesting for a short while but now it's annoying," she
said. "I feel like writing in somebody."
That's understandable for a person who's
been trapped in a perpetual phone loop with Governor Gilmore. but I
want power. In my next life, I want to be reincarnated as an
undecided voter in a swing district.