By Keith L. Runyon
In the last few weeks, I’ve been working harder than usual to figure out for whom to vote in this fall’s election. I’ve read what Insider Louisville, WFPL, The Courier-Journal and LEO have had to say about the candidates for the legislature, mayor, Congress, other local offices and, especially, for judge and school board. There’s plenty of facts to be gathered, from checklists and voter guides.
But as a longtime member of the old Courier-Journal and Louisville Times editorial board, I long for true endorsements, the kind that tell me why one candidate is better than others, and what the views of each may be on particular issues. That used to be standard fare in American newspapers, and it still is in many, but not here in Louisville.
At least one other major Gannett newspaper, the Des Moines Register, continues to make endorsements. (Incidentally, it still has an editorial board, unlike The Courier-Journal, and the Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.) In Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader still endorses candidates for local offices.
I understand that in a forum when asked about this, one top Courier-Journal editor said voters didn’t need to be told how to vote. Well, he’s right. Nobody “tells” anyone how to vote. But we could definitely benefit from well-researched and reasoned editorials that offer “recommendations” in all of these races. Most of all, we need the checklist published on the Sunday before the election and on Election Day.
In this year of great turmoil in our public schools, nowhere is guidance more important than in the two nonpartisan contests for the Jefferson County Board of Education. I have done my due diligence as best as I can from the sources available, and yet I feel as if I really don’t know more than a couple of the candidates well enough to make a decision.
In my case, I only have to choose among candidates in one race – my home district – but good citizens ought to know all of the races because each of the seven board members holds the fate of our schools in their hands. That goes for people who live in the five districts that either has no contest this year or where incumbents are unopposed.
Forty years ago, we faced a different kind of challenge when state law reorganized the way judges were elected. But thanks to a combination of leadership in the local bar, bench and media, we created a mechanism that tries to equal what is needed in school board races: Citizens for Better Judges (CBJ).
This nonprofit organization, with its two boards – one for lawyers, the other for civic-minded non-lawyers – carefully review all of the candidates who seek to serve on the Jefferson circuit and district courts. They also make recommendations for the Louisville jurists to serve on the court of appeals and the state Supreme Court.
I know a lot about that group because I was part of the editorial board at the newspapers that recommended the need for CBJ. Local leaders including Wilson Wyatt Sr., Frank Haddad, Charles Leibson, the former mayor Frank Burke and others took the idea to the public.
It continues to this day. And it serves an incredibly important function, especially now that The Courier-Journal has abandoned its longtime role as an editorial guide to voters. Without detailing its process here (you can read about it on their website, citizensforbetterjudges.org, I will simply say that extensive interviews and questionnaires, as well as background checking, the CBJ vets many candidates who file and in doing so, gives voters a clear choice of whom to support.
The organization has contributed immeasurably to the quality of the local bench, and especially to the advancement of women and minorities. Our local bench has been hailed nationally for its quality, and I think that knowledgeable sources offering guidance made a huge difference.
As with any endorsement, and the newspapers were among them, voters were free to accept – or reject – as they so desired. I remember that some candidates referred to our recommendations as “the kiss of death.” But I rarely knew of a candidate who didn’t seek them, nonetheless.
And able Republicans and Democrats benefited. In recent years, perhaps the most notable candidate whose career was advanced (and she will agree with this) was Rebecca Jackson when she was making her first race for county clerk back in 1989. Jackson was an unknown Republican candidate running a race against an entrenched Democrat and parlayed a strong editorial endorsement to victory.
Particularly because the newspaper has abrogated this role, my modest proposal is that a similar community group be formed to make recommendations for the Jefferson County school board. As with judges, these races are nonpartisan. Frequently, they draw public-spirited citizens whose goal is to advance public education, and over the years, there have been many, many great board members.
Creating Citizens for Better School Boards would be a challenge, but with leadership from veteran educators and civic leaders with volunteer experience in public education, it shouldn’t be that difficult to develop. To begin the process, I would suggest that the presidents of the three local universities, along with former school board chairmen (for instance, Sam Corbett, John Heyburn, David Jones Jr., and others). Bring in longtime leaders of CBJ to offer advice and counsel. Prepare now for the next round of elections in 2020. There will be plenty of races that year and wading through the thicket of candidates will be harder than ever.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to find out as much as we can about the candidates in this fall’s race and try to make the best choices. Insider Louisville is a nonprofit and cannot make a choice for you. Neither can Louisville Public Media. But both sources have done excellent work covering these nonpartisan races. I’d begin with their guides to determine which way to go.
Keith L. Runyon was for 35 years a member of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times editorial board. He retired as editorial page editor in 2012. He serves on the board of Louisville Public Media.