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ALMANAC: Identity politics and volunteerism in Claremont

The Almanac is always a time of reflection for us. We think about the year in news and how Claremonters reacted to our stories.

With the police station bond measure, the high turnover in management at city hall and the upcoming city council election, this year felt more stressful than normal.

Last week, city staff launched a core values campaign, asking residents to suggest words or phrases that best define Claremont. I’ve suggested “healthy trees” and “political activism.” I hope all residents take part in the survey.

Defining the city’s core values will be a challenging endeavor. Some people see it as an artistic and academic community; others may value its East Coast charm; some residents—even those who live and work here—may think Claremont is expensive and snobby. There is truth in all of it on some level, but the fact that our city is making an effort to define its core values is in itself “defining.”

Collaboration has always been a major theme for residents. The schools and police work together, churches work with youth groups, the sustainability folks regularly coordinate their efforts with our community services department. But the foundation of this synergy has always been Claremont’s volunteers.

Planning for the Almanac came at moment in our country—and, unfortunately, Claremont—where people are feeling pretty frazzled. Politics has been ugly this year, as our president squeezes every last drop of decorum from the national discussion. It’s sad for me to see the acrimony find its way to Claremont.

During the police station bond election, some residents took to sites like Next Door to air grievances. We can, and should, do better than turning to the dark web during local campaigns.

Yet as friends and family members blocked one another on Facebook and suffered through uncomfortable dinners, one group has managed to keep out of the fray—our volunteers.

Rotary and Kiwanis kept meeting each week. The CLASP tutors showed up each Tuesday afternoon to read with kids. Sustainable Claremont planted hundreds of trees this year. And through it all they checked their politics at the door. To me, this is something worth celebrating.

But as good as this sounds, Claremont is not immune. I’ve long considered myself a “fiscally-responsible Democrat;” an oxymoron to my conservative friends, perhaps, but we do exist. I took some heat this year from a city councilmember for suggesting we watch our money. He then provided a scathing criticism of my credentials as a journalist and resident. Regrettably, no one from the city offered an impartial analysis of my suggestions and the ensuing discussion took a turn for the worse.

When interactions among community members decline to this level, we create divisions that are hard to overcome. When our discourse veers from policies and practices to reputations and values, we’ve hit a low point, by most standards.

Political affiliations are personal and should remain so in Claremont life. That’s why it was a little disappointing to see our local Democratic Club “endorse” four Democratic candidates this season without a formal interview process.

Unfortunately, the endorsements weren’t decided upon through trying to determine what an individual might bring to the council, a process that is central to preserving the vitality of our community.

Claremont city council elections have long been non-partisan. It’s a good policy we should work hard to maintain. Introducing party politics into local elections often results in our council dedicating too much time to symbolic ordinances that have no impact on our day-to-day life. Calling out candidates for their party affiliations goes against the best traditions in Claremont politics. First and foremost, we should all identify as “Claremonters.”

Voting in municipal elections through the filter of national politics would fragment our citizenry in a way I don’t ever want to see. I’m not so far left that I won’t admit some of our best councilmembers have been Republicans. I’ve even voted for them.

At this point in history, even the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” can be polarizing. I’d love to see Claremonters rise above it and work to protect our system of community-based governance. We’ve done a good job so far, let’s not ruin it.

In our effort to exhale as we prepare for the election, we thought a look at the city’s best helpers might provide a much-needed break from matters of state. I hope you enjoy celebrating our volunteers as much as we have. Hands down, they’re the best thing about living in Claremont.

—Kathryn Dunn

editor@claremont-courier.com