In America today, we are incredibly divided along partisan lines. If you voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, this seems to be an irreconcilable difference for many people today, and that’s a tragedy. Fortunately, there are some people in our country who want to push back against this trend, and they are managing to gain ground in ways that transcend partisan lines.
One of the foremost examples of this pushback is the mayor of Tulsa, OK, G.T. Bynum. When he ran for office, he challenged a two-term incumbent, Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., who ran the typical partisan campaign. Bartlett publicized his endorsement of Donald Trump, and touted a letter to then-President Barack Obama opposing the settlement of Syrian refugees (even though none were being settled in Tulsa).
Bartlett even spread deliberately false information about his endorsements, claiming that the AFL-CIO labor union endorsed Bynum, even though it was actually the local firefighters union. Basically, he threw out anything to carry out a hardline partisan campaign against Bynum.
So how did Bynum respond? He ran a campaign focused on policy, not partisanship.
When something like this hits you in a campaign, you have to decide how you're going to respond, and we had a novel idea. What if, instead of responding with partisanship, we responded with a focus on results? What if we ran a campaign that was not about running against someone, but was about bringing people together behind a common vision?
And so we decided to respond not with a negative ad but with something people find even sexier -- data points.
We emphasized things like increasing per capita income in our city, increasing our city's population, and we stuck to those relentlessly, throughout the campaign, always bringing it back to those things by which our voters could measure, in a very transparent way, how we were doing, and hold me accountable if I got elected.
In essence, Bynum set aside party affiliation and personalities to emphasize the importance of ideas, the importance of actually putting forth a vision for one’s constituents that will serve more than a partisan agenda. People in Tulsa took notice of this.
In the 2016 election, he beat the incumbent mayor by 17 points. It took a lot of work, but it all paid off in the end.
One of the things that Bynum discussed during the talk was the fact that politicians seem to naturally fall back on divisions to promote their campaigns.
I believe it is because politicians find it easier to throw the red meat out to the base than to innovate.
The conventional wisdom is that to win an election, you have to dumb it down and play to your constituencies' basest, divisive instincts. And when somebody wins an election like that, they win, that's true, but the rest of us lose.
So what does Bynum want to see instead? He envisions people emphasizing policy and results rather than sheer partisanship, where ideas and measurable progress are more important than voter registration; and that involves learning from other people’s strategies, regardless of how they are aligned. His foremost example was how Martin O’Malley worked to reduce crime rates in Baltimore when he was the mayor.
O’Malley employed a strategy first used by Rudy Giuliani in New York City, where crime statistics were collected on a daily and hourly basis instead of a monthly or annual basis. With information that is closer to real time, police resources could be allocated accordingly; that’s part of how Giuliani reduced crime rates while mayor.
While mayor, O’Malley used a similar approach, and in a decade was able to reduce crime rates by 50 percent. However, he also employed that strategy to all problems the city faced, and many other cities are taking similar approaches now, such as Atlanta with their housing issues, and Louisville with their vacant and abandoned properties.
Bynum has employed this strategy in his city, and people from all walks of life are joining him in the fight to make Tulsa world class. One particular problem he’s hoping to address is the fact that those born in the predominantly African-American part of the city have a life-expectancy 11 years shorter than someone born anywhere else in the city.
We've got white folks and black folks, Hispanic folks, and Native American folks, we've got members of Congress, members of the city council, business leaders, religious leaders, Trump people and Hillary people, all joined by one common belief, and that is that a kid should have an equal shot at a good life in our city, regardless of what part of town they happen to be born in.
Ideas are superior to partisanship any time of the day, and I welcome debate and discussion of ideas in an honest and respectful way so that everyone in my community can benefit.
What are your thoughts on Bynum’s strategy? Do you have a leader like that in your town?