Who are we to suggest to readers how to vote? I occasionally get asked this question, and I sometimes ask it myself.

by Chris Kenrick

Our Town: A considered vote

Publication Date: Wednesday Oct 30, 1996

Our Town: A considered vote

Will the Sand Hill Road extension get built? Will your child's teacher get a raise next year?

How will the local poor be affected by the new federal welfare reform law?

These are some of the issues at stake for Midpeninsula residents when they go to the polls next Tuesday.

With the media blitz of the national and statewide campaigns, most of us have had a chance to consider our opinions on some of the biggies: Clinton vs. Dole, Propositions 208, 209, 211, 214, 216.

Often lost in the shuffle are the smaller and more obscure election contests: for water boards, sewer boards, judgeships, county boards of supervisors--even sometimes school boards, city councils and the state Legislature.

Each election season for the past decade or so I've been involved in interviewing candidates in these local races for purposes of a newspaper endorsement.

Some years, the process has been mind-numbing: up to 100 local contenders to keep track of, with a smattering of ideologues and one-issue candidates.

This year, with only about two dozen local candidates, it's been easier and more fun.

Each candidate comes in for a 30- to 45-minute grilling with members of the Weekly's editorial board. We try to seek out the range of issues in each race, identify where and exactly how the candidates differ and glean enough about each candidate's experience to figure out what skills and perspectives he or she would bring to the table.

In the process, we pick up other interesting facts. This year we've learned, among other things, about behind-the-scenes intrigue at the Atherton City Council, unconventional approaches to subsidized housing in Los Altos and high teacher turnover in East Palo Alto's schools, where 60 percent of the students are native Spanish speakers.

Following all the interviews, we Weekly editors pool our less-than-perfect knowledge of the candidates to come up with newspaper endorsements in the various contests.

Who are we to suggest to readers how to vote? I occasionally get asked this question, and I sometimes ask it myself.

Far more frequently, however, come the last minute pre-election calls from friends, relatives and Weekly readers seeking guidance on how to vote on these obscure local races that they haven't quite had a chance to focus on. The Weekly, at least, has spent some time with the candidates and basically knows who they are.

My biggest frustration in the endorsement process comes in races where we have more superbly qualified candidates than available seats. On what basis, then, do we choose? Are we giving too much weight to incumbency? Is it fair to those candidates who are not endorsed? More than once I've suggested to fellow editors that we just outline the differences among top candidates and ask people to choose for themselves.

But we always come back to the fact that voters must make a choice--and so should we. The best service we can offer is making it clear in our editorials when the choice is easy and when high qualifications among candidates makes choosing a difficult process. The truth is that most voters, while perhaps taking note of newspaper endorsements, will ultimately make their own decisions in the voting booth.

What most stands out to me, after years of interviewing candidates, is the commitment and generosity of the individuals who step forward to seek these local offices. For the most part, these are unglamorous jobs that demand a tremendous amount of time with little or no pay. They require week after week of late-night meetings and an astonishing volume of paperwork. This is real public service.

These candidates are volunteering themselves to keep our sewers and water supplies in working order, oversee our vast and challenging public schools and make incredibly complex judgment calls about land use and development. And more often than not they are criticized--not thanked--by the public.

My hat is off to people willing to take the time, effort and expense to put themselves before the public in such circumstances. They are offering us a great deal.

The least we can do in return is find the time to settle down for a serious reading of our ballot statements, and show up at the polls Tuesday prepared to cast a conscientious vote.

Chris Kenrick edits the Weekly's Spectrum and ReaderWire pages.

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