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They gave an election and (virtually) no one came

Tuesday was a bad day to be an incumbent.

In the municipal general election, nearly every single experienced member of local city councils lost a re-election bid.

And the overall election turnout? A pathetic 8.68 percent valleywide, the worst participation in a municipal general election in at least the past five elections.

That’s not to say incumbents didn’t have their moments this year. In the April primaries, Henderson Councilwoman Debra March was elevated to mayor, John Lee retained his mayoral seat in North Las Vegas, and Las Vegas Councilman Stavros Anthony and North Las Vegas Councilman Issac Barron won re-election, too.

But the general? Disaster for incumbents.

In Boulder City, two-term Councilman Cam Walker came in fourth in a four-way race for two council seats. In North Las Vegas, two-term Councilwoman Anita Wood lost her re-election bid to Lee-backed candidate Scott Black.

In Las Vegas, Councilman Bob Beers saw his five-year council tenure come to an end as retired Air Force Col. Steve Seroka came out on top. Kelli Ross, the wife of term-limited Councilman Steve Ross, lost to former Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. And Municipal Court Judge Heidi Almase lost her seat to Deputy District Attorney Cara Campbell.

What gives? Low-turnout, off-year elections usually favor the candidate with the best name recognition, and experienced politicians generally have the best get-out-the-vote operations. How did the incumbents lose?

Don’t blame the general distrust of incumbent politicians that’s a hallmark of the Donald Trump era. While elected officials don’t rank high on totems of public trust (right around journalists, in fact) this wasn’t a wave election.

No, local issues more easily explain the political shifts.

In Boulder City, development was a key issue. Voters soundly defeated two initiatives — one to loosen the city’s controls on development, another dealing with a potential freeway interchange. Walker opposed the measures, although he did say in a newspaper questionnaire that growth caps should be liberalized.

In Las Vegas, Beers was embroiled in a controversy over development on a golf course that was opposed by neighbors in a wealthy enclave. He was also dogged by a vote to extend an exclusive trash franchise agreement with monopoly provider Republic Services. (Full disclosure: My wife works in the city’s office of communications.)

Fiore not only has name recognition earned over two terms in the Assembly and a bid for Congress, she is also well known as a tenacious campaigner. Still, her race was decided by just 165 votes, the closest race of the night.

In North Las Vegas, Black was boosted by the political and financial backing of Lee, who had his share of disagreements with Wood on the council, specifically over the elimination of the municipal court department of a wayward judge. In an unusual move, the mayor recruited and promoted his handpicked choice over a council colleague.

Meanwhile, in Henderson, no serious controversy emerged to disrupt Marz’s re-election. (He was criticized for breaking a promise to not seek election to the seat after he was initially appointed in 2012. But that didn’t stop him from getting elected in 2013, and it didn’t stand in his way this year.

All of which brings us to turnout: According to Clark County figures, a grand total of 44,835 people voted in the municipal general election. (It’s worth noting that the council elections in North Las Vegas and Las Vegas took place in individual wards only, although the judicial race in Las Vegas was citywide. In Henderson and Boulder City, council candidates run citywide.)

That 44,835 people represent less than 10 percent of all registered voters in the jurisdictions that held elections. And the number of registered voters represents only a portion of the number of people who are eligible to vote. There are ideas to fix that — more lenient deadlines to register, more early voting or automatic registration at the DMV — but the reality is, if the will to get out to the polls isn’t there, no amount of encouragement will boost paltry turnout.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5276. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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