Unlike Portland and Eugene, Salem is frequently regarded as a conservative city in a blue state. Oregon has a Democratic governor and legislature, but few of Salem’s city councilors are progressive. Most are conservative.
Is Salem actually a Republican town?
It turns out – no.
“People think the Republicans won in 2014. But that’s not true in Salem. In Salem, Jeff Merkley, who is one of the most progressive US senators – won Salem by 16%,” says Salem’s Tina Calos, who has followed electoral trends for the last ten years, “and that’s a landslide.”
Merkley even won in Salem’s most conservative ward, Ward 4.
Are we at least conservative on land use? Not at all. Calos points to Measure 49, a 2007 ballot measure to restrict development and preserve Oregon’s land use system. Measure 49 also passed in every ward in Salem.
It passed “by very wide margins,” Calos says. “Voters did not want to allow developers to do just anything to the land… every Salem ward voted in favor of preserving Oregon’s land use system.” In that contest, the overall city vote was 71% in favor of land use. “I think the Measure 49 vote says a lot about what the people want as it contrasts with what the city sometimes does,” Calos says.
In a state that legalized “Death with Dignity” as early as 1994 and recreational marijuana two months ago, figures indicate that Salem has become more “progressive” in the last ten years. The three wards closest to central Salem currently host the three Democrats on city council, but election watchers say out-lying wards vote more like central Salem, (and Portland,) every year.
Why don’t people recognize the town as progressive?
“One factor is the daily newspaper, which is much more conservative than the people,” Calos says. “Another factor is, I think, that this process has been happening gradually over 10 years; there’s been no big shake up.”
It doesn’t help that election results are most often reported by county, when the populations of Marion and Polk counties as a whole are more conservative than residents in Salem are.
On candidates and ballot measures, Salem consistently votes progressive while surrounding rural areas do not. But election results are released using county figures. “Marion County is just a microcosm of the national rural-urban divide,” Calos says. “Salem votes much more progressive than the rural areas around it.”
In “Red State, Blue City,” Josh Kron of The Atlantic argues, “The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either — virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it.”
If Salem is actually progressive, why is city government so conservative?
One reason observers give is that city officers are generally chosen in May, when there is historically low voter turnout. These Primary elections have never had the turnout of November general elections. A 2013 study conducted by Political Research Quarterly of 340 mayoral elections in 144 U.S. cities found that only 25.8% of voters cast ballots in primaries.
Another factor is that Democrats and progressives are generally younger and urban, and these populations change residence more frequently than Republicans.
In Oregon, this means Democrats more often fall off the voting list because Oregon votes by mail and the Post Office does not forward election materials. Thousands of these voters must make the effort to re-register.
Significantly greater resources also support Salem conservatives. In three of the four contested city council races in spring of 2014, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce’s Create Jobs PAC, the Home Builders Association and the Salem Association of Realtors supported the candidate who prevailed.
The Chamber’s Create Jobs PAC alone spent $18,641 on the four City Council candidates. It also donated $2,500 to incumbent Mayor Anna Peterson’s campaign – one month after it was clear that she was unopposed.
In Ward 6, Republican Daniel Benjamin outspent his Democrat opponent Xue Lor by about 10-to-1, with 92% of his funding coming from the Chamber, Homebuilders and Realtors.
In recent years, also, many Salem city offices have been uncontested. For example in 2012, only one city council seat had more than one candidate. In the 2014 election, no one ran against incumbent Mayor Anna Peterson; without an opponent, Peterson was officially chosen by about 11,000 people in a city of more than 160,000. And for twelve years, there has been no contest for city councilor in Ward 4. Election observers say that voters get in the habit of “tuning out” when they see ballots with no real choice.
It also makes a difference that conservatives have entered races far more often than progressives in recent years. Salem city council seats are unpaid positions that require considerable time and thought; some speculate that conservatives run because they are more financially comfortable, or because they hope to influence government to their advantage – others say they step up because of a love of community and desire to contribute for genuine, altruistic reasons.
Whatever the cause, the impact of conservatives on Salem government is indisputable, and because of them, the city continues to move forward with projects such as the proposed 3rd Bridge across the Willamette.
Are things changing in Salem?
Calos is part of the group that recently founded Progressive Salem, an organization she describes as “a small group of progressives engaged in grassroots politics.” In 2014, the group claims its had a major impact in the election of one progressive city councilor, Tom Andersen in Ward 2, and says it is the reason Ward 4 Democrat Scott Basset came within 200 votes of the conservative opponent who outspent him three to one.
“Did you know that Democrats hold a registration edge in all but two of the eight City Council wards in Salem?” the group asks at progressivesalem.com. “And Republicans make up less than one third of the Salem electorate.”
Anderson and his supporters say that Ward 2 residents welcomed the contact with progressives who cared about city issues when they went door-to-door.
Anderson volunteer Kirk Leonard says he found, “People generally don’t think they are heard by our city council in my neighborhood.”
Anderson himself visited over 700 homes and says, “many of those, rightly or wrongly, felt disconnected from City Hall.” He gives as example that “less than half a dozen people” told him they were in favor of building a 3rd Bridge across the Willamette. “Everyone else wanted to spend any money on improving the bridges we have,” he recalls. This direction is in opposition to the one that has been pursued by city government for years.
Spring 2016 will see new elections in Salem. Council positions for four wards (Wards 1, 3, 5 and 7) and the office of Mayor will be up for grabs again.
Will the myriad forces that have kept city government more conservative than its residents continue to prevail? Time will tell.