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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 | Every political operative in San Diego should take a look at this picture of the board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and stare at it for a minute.
Burn the image of these smiling public servants into your brain.
If you ever want to have success supporting a ballot measure or candidate, you will benefit by remembering this photo.
And if you ever want to have success opposing a ballot measure or candidate, you will also benefit tremendously by remembering this photo and what it means.
Why? The airport authority did everything wrong it possibly could in the effort to get a ballot measure passed. It was indecisive. Its officials were weak and accommodating. It didn’t know what it wanted. It didn’t present a vision of how the region would be better off voting for whatever it was that the airport authority put in front of them.
In short, it did everything wrong.
If you ever want to have success crafting a political measure containing a grand plan, you will want to remember what the majority of the people on the board of the airport authority did and do the exact opposite.
San Diego may have only been in the audience of the great political drama that unfolded nationwide, but we got to witness locally the year of the proposition. A perceptive observer could have learned a lot by watching it progress.
In case you missed it, or didn’t understand the horribly convoluted question it was asking you on the ballot, the airport authority placed a measure in front of voters that asked whether it should, in concert with other unnamed and unimaginable officials, “work to obtain” part of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for use as a new international airport for the region.
It didn’t describe what kind of airport the authority imagined. Its officials hedged when people asked them where the runways would be exactly. It didn’t say how it would ever convince the military that the plan could work. It intimated major revisions to roads and highways would be needed but refused to say what they were, how much they’d cost and who would pay for them.
Some consultants for the airport authority had done things like this, but the board never wanted to commit to any specific vision. It wanted to keep its options open. Translation: It didn’t want to upset anyone.
That’s not the way to do great things.
The airport authority’s ballot measure – Proposition A – was the product of a gloriously unproductive three-year effort. The effort always seemed to be heading toward a presentation about the possibilities of putting an airport at Miramar. But the airport authority never quite wanted to say so and when it finally did it said it had no intention of asking the military to leave.
When it later conceded that the military would have to abandon a major portion of its operations at the air base, the airport authority tweaked its rhetoric to try to preserve the myth that the airport would work alongside a fully functioning Marine Corps base.
Finally, as pressure mounted, airport authority officials backed away and said all they really wanted to do was have a dialogue with the military.
In the end, there are really only a few people in San Diego who might know exactly what would have happened if Proposition A had passed. And I – as much as I’ve studied and followed the issue over the last few years – am not one of them.
An effort touted to be the end-all solution to the region’s air transportation dilemma turned into merely a hollowed-out advisory measure with no apparent implementation plan.
The only message the airport authority had clear was that our convenient little airport would someday reach capacity and cause economically crippling congestion.
And when a prominent local economist cast doubt on even this supposedly secure fact, it was almost sad to watch this organization try to grasp something, anything, that resembled a coherent argument in favor of their ballot measure.
Is it any wonder that the business community, the most obvious of potential supporters of construction of a new airport, offered only anemic and begrudging advocacy on Proposition A’s behalf?
The ballot measure was the product of weakness – of an unwillingness to commit to a vision because of the hostility the vision might provoke. But it was a miscalculation. If there’s one thing that people react brutally to, it’s weakness. Voters never miss a chance to punish indecisiveness.
Look at the propositions that triumphed Tuesday. Those that envisioned something concrete, something that could be explained in one sentence, had a chance of succeeding. Think of the successful ones in your head: Proposition B: a measure that will now require the city to ask voters in the future if it can enhance the pensions of city employees. Proposition C: the initiative that now allows the city to outsource some of its work.
Simple. Easy to understand. Disagree if you’d like. And if the disagreement is just as easy to communicate as the measure is to explain, it will be a barnburner – a race where money and exposure triumphs.
Now look at the airport authority’s ballot measure. Explain what it was in one sentence. Go on, try.
That’s not the way to win the proposition game.