Wikimedia Commons

A Cities guide to the very close state-level elections.

The future of long-distance transportation isn't at stake in the current election, but plenty of other urban matters are. Eleven states will vote on new leaders today — though only three elections were considered "toss-ups" by the polling site Real Clear Politics (as of Monday): Washington, Montana, and New Hampshire. In each case the departing governor is a Democrat.

The race for the state of Washington may be the closest in the country. The latest polls have Jay Inslee, the Democratic candidate who left Congress to campaign for the governorship, up about a point on Rob McKenna, the Republican who's currently the state's attorney general. Inslee and McKenna will vie for a seat that's belonged to Democrats for the past 28 years.

On the issues most relevant to city life, the candidates show some agreement as well as some clear divisions. Both have supported putting a tax measure to raise revenue for transportation (including mass transit) on a future ballot. But while Inslee supports a proposed light rail line over the Columbia River toward Vancouver, McKenna is skeptical of the project and has opposed light rail in the past.

Both candidates seem particularly strong on the environment. Inslee "made a name for himself" through his support of clean energy, according to the Seattle Times, and has pledged to continue a push for more mass transit started by outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire. McKenna, meanwhile, says he'll do a better job protecting the public works trust fund that gives low-interest loans to cities but has been raided by the legislature in recent years.

Inslee may have a slight lead in the pre-poll surveys, but he's getting crushed on the endorsement front. The major newspapers in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Walla Walla all raised their editorial voices for McKenna. The Seattle Times cites his "independent mind" and willingness to "buck his party"; indeed, McKenna is leading 53 to 33 percent among independent voters.

Of 13 leading daily papers in the state, only The Olympian, out of Olympia, considered Inslee the better man for the job. The paper writes that Inslee is better suited to bridge the state's true political divide — the one between urban and rural communities — because he served in a congressional district that's home to both.

In the Montana race to replace term-limited Governor Brian Schweitzer, the Republican candidate Rick Hill, a former Congressman, is ahead of Democratic candidate Steve Bullock, the attorney general, by less than two points. The Billings Gazette, in the state's largest city, endorses Hill for his proposals to help the communities that have grown during the fracking boom in Bakken. The Missoulian, in the second-largest city, likes Bullock on the question of campaign spending ethics.

The latter point reflects a bit of late-breaking scandal that's come to the contest. Hill recently received a $500,000 donation from his party (far exceeding the party limit of $22,600) during a six-day window in which the Supreme Court rejected a new state limit on campaign contributions (being pushed by Atty Gen. Bullock). A judge has blocked Hill from using the money.

Energy is a big deal this election. The state is rolling in money courtesy of Bakken, but the growth has put a strain on localities near the drilling operations. Hill wants to let these areas borrow against future taxes and has even proposed putting coal revenue into an infrastructure trust fund. The idea has the sound of an infrastructure bank, which could be effective, but the details at Hill's campaign website suggests he's more concerned with oil production than clean energy sources.

That's not to say Bullock opposes drilling by any stretch. He wants to encourage oil production just like Gov. Schweitzer (a Democrat) did, and believes Montana's permit process works better under Schweitzer than it did when the state was under Republican control. (Hill is high on removing oil regulations.) Bullock's reported approach to helping the communities affected by the oil boom would be to grant them direct state funds.

Bullock has supported public bonds for new buildings for the state university system, a veterans' home in Butte, and a history museum in Helena. He cites tech start-ups in Bozeman and Missoula as part of his vision of Montana as the "next Silicon Valley" — a bit of a stretch, to say the least, but there are worse things than aiming high.

New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan is ahead of Republican Ovide Lamontagne by about three and a half points. By this writing, Real Clear Politics had shifted the race from "toss-up" to "lean Democrat," but it remains quite close and the choice quite stark. As the Concord Monitor recently wrote, the candidates differ on just about every issue except the fact that state liquor stores shouldn't sell beer.

Hassan, a former state senator, seems to have the edge on Lamontagne, a former chair of the state board of education, when it comes to city matters. Some of that's in Hassan's blood; her father was Robert Wood, undersecretary of housing and urban developing under Lyndon Johnson, and later head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Wood helped to implement the well-intentioned but ultimately flawed Model Cities program in the 1960s and once called himself "essentially an urbanist."

Hassan enters the race prepared to double the state's research and development tax credit, which could be a boon to universities, and although it's tough to find any positions on public transit, Hassan's approach to highway spending is more in tune with present transportation problems. Unlike her opponent, Hassan has expressed a willingness to raise New Hampshire's gas tax, which has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1991. On other energy matters, Hassan supports state involvement in a regional climate change initiative, whereas Lamontagne does not.

Newspapers in the state's biggest cities are divided. The Manchester Union Leader — Lamontagne's home town — says Hassan's views don't fit into the state. ("Hassan speaks about the people of New Hampshire as though she were a galactic anthropologist studying a bizarre alien culture.") The paper seems mostly upset that she once supported a mandatory seatbelt law.

The Concord Monitor and the Nashua Telegraph, meanwhile, support her. The Monitor likes that Hassan would repeal a Voter ID law that discourages the young, old, and poor from voting — which Lamontagne supports, and which, of course, has the potential to hit urban voters hardest.
Top image: The Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. (Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  5. photo: A waterfront park in Macau.

    Longing for the Great Outdoors? Think Smaller.

    Access to parks, nature, and wildlife is critical for physical and emotional well-being. Now some city dwellers sheltered at home must find it in new ways.