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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Changing Voter Turnout Affects Campaigns

On the East Side, Flaherty and Kovac advance to April election

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The field has narrowed from eight candidates to two, and on April 1 Patrick Flaherty and Nik Kovac will vie for departing East Side Alderman Mike D’Amato’s Milwaukee Common Council seat. The Feb. 19 primary was an unusual one, and not just because the open seat provided so much heat on the East Side and Riverwest. The primary also drew huge numbers of new, student and infrequent voters because the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton race ramped up voter participation.

Neil Albrecht, assistant director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said that 47% of registered voters turned out in February, “a higher percentage than the presidential primaries in 2004 or 2000.” UW-Milwaukee, which is within the Third District, had “very high” turnout, according to Albrecht. In Ward 39, where most if not all voters are UWM students, 1,137 voters cast ballots, “one of the highest turnouts in the city,” Albrecht said.

Yet only 871 cast a vote for alderman. Kovac drew 286 of those UWM votes, while Flaherty won 206 votes. In Ward 40, which includes students as well as the area surrounding UWM, Flaherty won 228 votes, while Kovac won 223. Flaherty, who is on leave from his position as director of Center Advocates, won the primary overall with 32% of the total vote (4,167 of 13,116 votes), while community journalist Kovac captured 26% of the total vote (3,406 votes).

But the high primary turnout is likely to decrease on the April Fools’ Day election, creating an unusual scenario: The general election may draw fewer voters than the primary. Albrecht said that his office is predicting a 30%-35% turnout in the general election, which has races for state Supreme Court, Milwaukee mayor, Milwaukee county executive, Milwaukee city attorney and a host of competitive municipal and county positions.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick said the impact of a smaller turnout on the Third District race is “a hard read.” “In this case, he who best organizes Election Day turnout activities and that kind of thing and has done the most doors is most likely to win,” Broderick said. “It looks like Flaherty has a big leg up here. He had a significantly greater vote tally than Kovac.”

In addition to the fluctuating voter turnout, the six other primary candidates’ supporters will have to choose a new candidate in April. Broderick said he suspected that third-place finisher Sam McGovern-Rowen’s supporters would back Flaherty. Broderick, who endorsed McGovern-Rowen in the primary, is not endorsing in the general election. But he said that he would be voting for Flaherty in April.

Sura Faraj, who finished fourth in the primary, has endorsed Kovac in the general election. “I’ve seen Nik at places and events and meetings that are important to me,” Faraj said. “He has a good grasp of the neighborhood and policy issues.”

Campaign Adjustments
Both Third District candidates are adjusting their campaigns to capture the smaller voter pool. “We’re looking at lower turnout on April 1 because we don’t have the high drama of the presidential primary,” Flaherty said. “But Third District residents understand that whoever is alderman is going to make a big difference in the decisions that get made in the next four years, which we’re going to have to live with for generations.”

Kovac said his efforts to reach residents will help him next month. “Unfortunately turnout is probably going to go down [in April],” Kovac said. “But I think that will probably hurt me less than others because people who voted for me have met me, and I think that some of the people who voted for my opponents have met me as well.”

And both candidates are contrasting their visions for the office with D’Amato’s tenure as alderman. “I want to restore residents’ confidence in the way that developments get approved by bringing more transparency and neighborhood input into the development process,” Flaherty said. “I see the aldermanic role as being a consensus-building role. It’s neither to push something through before there’s maximum consensus nor is it to cave in to a couple naysayers.”

Kovac said that he shares D’Amato’s vision as an urban progressive. “I think in the overall vision for development we agree,” Kovac said. “But where we disagree is how we get there. I want to make sure to involve neighborhoods.”

Shepherd Express endorsed Flaherty in the primary; Kovac wrote two free-lance articles for the Shepherd in 2007, and a handful of articles in 2005 as a freelancer.

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