On Monday night, after watching our two candidates for Mayor take questions from local journalists for an hour at the Keenan Center, I sat down to write a column about how lucky we were are here in Lockport. It seemed that Mayor Michelle Roman and challenger David Wohleben were both strong candidates, two smart and committed people who love Lockport and want to make the city better.
Then the campaign got dirty.
Starting on Tuesday voters all over Lockport began receiving mysterious ‘robocalls’ from an unidentified source proclaiming that local unions had “accidentally revealed” secret contract agreements with Mayor Roman. From the cowardice of anonymity someone was trying a last minute smear to try to push Mr. Wohleben into office.
Even though these recorded calls are aimed directly at making him mayor, Mr. Wohleben claims he has no idea at all who is behind them. That means one of two things – either Mr. Wohleben is lying or there is a secret group of very powerful and very slimy people working hard to put him in charge of our city. In whichever case, we as citizens and voters have every right to be concerned. Anonymous phone calls pitching scandal are not how local politics should be conducted.
In fact, these calls are a direct violation of federal communications law which requires that robocalls for candidates clearly identify who is responsible. At least when Marriot Hotels interrupts me with one of those stupid recorded calls telling me I’ve won a prize, I know who it is from. Why are Mr. Wohleben or his supporters so intent on making these calls in secret? That’s not hard to figure out. It is a slimy move unworthy of a campaign for Mayor.
To be honest, we already had reason to question Mr. Wohleben’s political tactics when he went outside the regular city process to start private negotiations with county Republicans and seek a pre-election deal on the 911 dispatch issue. Mr. Wohleben’ s political mischief with our emergency response service drew a sharp rebuke from Lockport’s former chief of police, Larry Eggert, a lifelong Republican. He called the move “a bull in a China shop.”
A long time ago a political science professor of mine told me that there is something about political campaigns that brings out people’s hidden character. I think you can see that in both candidates now.
At the Keenan Center the other night Mr. Wohleben declared that being the Mayor of Lockport is his ‘dream job.’ Having been denied the Republican nomination last year, he sees this election as his best chance to get it and, sadly, it seems he may be willing to do almost anything to get there. Mayor Roman, for her part, seems almost unable to punch back. Or perhaps she is just unwilling. Maybe she has spent too many years teaching middle school students to think that acting like one is how you ought to wage a local political campaign.
There is one other piece of Mr. Wohleben’s campaign that I find concerning. His campaign platform, if you read it, calls for the elimination of the city’s new Human Relations Commission. If I learned one thing from my recent ‘Black in Lockport’ series and all the reaction to it, it is that the people of our city are ready and eager to have a real conversation about the silent divisions that keep us apart. That is a healthy thing and Mayor Roman has recruited a wonderfully diverse and committed group of Lockport citizens to serve on the Commission and help that happen.
If elected, Mr. Wohleben plans to erase that away with a stroke of his pen. He wants to replace it with a new commission made up of county and state politicians, and others who don’t even live in the city. It is an appointment list guaranteed to deliver up a familiar set of the same old faces, most of who aren’t even from here. Why on earth would he want to do that? Is he uncomfortable with the diversity of the current commission? Does he think these issues are unimportant?
The election for Mayor isn’t about giant differences of opinion on big issues. Both Mayor Roman and Mr. Wohleben want lower taxes, both support more local businesses, they have each pledged orderly parks and sidewalks, and both say they like dogs. The real difference between the two is how they see leadership and there is no better evidence of that than in how each is conducting themselves in the campaign.
Lockport is a wonderful city, with a civic spirit full of volunteerism, goodwill, and acts of community. That is what our local politics should be about as well – not creepy anonymous robocalls, secret partisan negotiations, or fear of diversity and new voices. Dirty politics should have no place here and the way to put a stop to it is by going to the polls on Tuesday. That is when we as voters have our say in the matter and have a chance to choose the kind of local leadership we want for the city we love.
Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.