Spikes tries to tap into voter angst

In case you haven’t noticed, politicians aren’t too popular right now. At tea parties, at town-hall meetings and on Internet forums, people are expressing frustration that transcends partisanship. There is a sense that we have been let down, if not by our institutions, then by anyone who has run them in recent years.

We rage at the machine in this way every now and then, but we don’t often elect government newcomers into office. (See Perot, Ross, or Millner, Guy.)

Jesse Spikes hopes this time is different. He is the outsider running against the insiders in Atlanta’s mayoral race this fall, the rookie taking on City Council President Lisa Borders, Councilwoman Mary Norwood, state Sen. Kasim Reed. The 59-year-old attorney harped on this point last weekend during Campaign for Atlanta’s candidate forum on the city’s finances.

“I am not a politician. I will not become a politician in this process,” Spikes declared at the outset. “The politicians who led us into this [financial] mess are not the ones to lead us out of it,” he said in closing.

I’m not here to endorse Jesse Spikes. But I dislike our static political class and the powers of incumbency, and so I find the pitch of a nonpolitician like Spikes — and the difficulties such a campaign faces — intriguing.

Granted, Atlanta’s local politics and nonpartisan elections are in many ways far removed from our national debates.

Yet there has been a similarly steady build-up of frustration among city residents over problems that don’t seem to disappear no matter who holds office: budget deficits, underfunded pension liabilities, unsatisfactory public safety and services, mismanagement in city bureaus.

Atlantans, Spikes told me this week, feel “that their inquiries often receive no responses, that when [officials] make decisions, they don’t necessarily make them in the best interests of the city, the voters, the residents.”

At last weekend’s forums — videos of which will soon be available for viewing at CampaignForAtlanta.org — the three political veterans in the race seemed to recognize the public mood and to play down their connections to City Hall.

But even if the electorate is skeptical of career pols, experience is a double-edged sword.

At the forum, Spikes came across as a clearly brilliant man, as you’d expect from someone whose education includes Dartmouth undergrad, Rhodes scholar, Harvard law. On any given topic, though, one of the political vets offered a more detailed answer than Spikes did. They have, after all, been dealing with such issues for a living. He hasn’t.

Spikes argues that their familiarity is central to the problem: “We need a new perspective and … someone who’s willing to look at [problems] differently.”

So the question is: Will voters risk a poor first year while the rookie climbs the learning curve, on the premise that he might achieve something unique by year four? The irony is that while political novices may have their greatest appeal during a crisis, that’s also when voters’ appetite for risk is lowest. Thus the difficulty in breaking through.

The sense of risk isn’t eased by a newcomer’s lack of name recognition. A new opinion poll by InsiderAdvantage that asked about the top four candidates shows Norwood and Borders — who have won citywide before — in a statistical dead heat with support of 30 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Reed, despite having served parts of Atlanta in the state Legislature for a decade and being perceived as “next in line” to be mayor, got just 8 percent.

And Spikes, 18 months after he joined the race? Two percent.

That means about a third of voters are undecided. “If [the veterans] were what the voters wanted, this race would have been over a long time ago,” Spikes said.

“And it’s not.”

He points to mayors Michael Bloomberg in New York and Dave Bing in Detroit as proof that the novice can win. But Bloomberg was a famous businessman and Bing a former star athlete.

If Spikes becomes mayor, or even makes it to a runoff, it will be a case of voters at last putting their ballots where their anti-politician mouths are.

Note: Kyle Wingfield will begin blogging daily later this month. Commenting on this blog will open then.

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