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Monday, Nov. 13, 2006 | Last week, I pulled out the calculator and figured that Kourosh Hangafarin had spent about $350 to get each of the 661 votes he received in his race for mayor of Imperial Beach.
He lost. It will be very interesting to find out why he wanted to be mayor Imperial Beach so badly. He didn’t live there. Perhaps he watched with envy as former Imperial Beach Mayor Brian Bilbray entrenched himself in Congress for perhaps the next decade after his win in the 50th.
But Hangafarin’s expenditure helps us launch into this post-election version of Lesson’s Learned:
- Money Can’t Buy You Love
We are not unaccustomed to big spenders in local elections. What would be unexpected, however, would be to see one of them win.
There was banker Peter Q. Davis, in the 2000 and 2004 mayoral campaigns. He faced two rivals in 2004 – County Supervisor Ron Roberts and then Mayor Dick Murphy – who could raise money based on their incumbency in separate high-profile public offices. But Davis, to be competitive, had to spend, and he did. But it wasn’t enough to earn him a spot either time in the general runoff election.
There was Phil Thalheimer in the 2004 election for City Council District 1. He spent more than $1 million – shattering spending records for City Council races – and although he made it to a runoff with incumbent Scott Peters. He didn’t close the deal.
Then Steve Francis, in the 2005 special mayoral election. He spent $2 million. Lot’s of money, but no luck.
So what’s the lesson? Money is important. It’s imperative to have financial support – whether it’s your own or donated – to win local races. But it’s not everything.
You have to build a movement. It has to seem natural that the populace is turning to you to represent them in office. It can’t seem forced.
- Imagine Losing
I’ll never forget seeing veteran political consultant Tom Shepard one time last year when Jerry Sanders was running for mayor against Donna Frye. Shepard was running Sanders’ campaign.
It was after a press conference and I went over to throw some questions his way. He seemed distraught and kind of pale. He admitted not having slept much if at all over the previous couple of days.
Shepard has his fair share of critics if not outright enemies. But say what you will, he wins political campaigns. And I think he does it, in large part, by imagining how he might lose them and getting a little sick about the image.
Shepard started the campaign for Propositions B and C months and months ago – raising money from local deep pockets and anticipating the arguments. Many of us thought the propositions were a foregone conclusion – that the voters would happily trust whatever the mayor put on the ballot and sign off. Shepard, however, prepared. And when an opposition did flare against Proposition C, he had arranged for a machine that was strong enough to keep it going.
- Start Early
Speaking of Proposition C, representatives of the workers unions that opposed the measure fully admit they got off to an incredibly late start.
I asked Donald Cohen, the head of the Center for Policy Initiatives, what took the opposition to Proposition C so long to rev up.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because we’ve had eight elections in the last two years. People are just burnt out,” Cohen said.
That makes sense. How nice would it be if we could go two years now without an election?
But regardless, a flurry of union spending at the end of the race over Proposition C can’t make up for the lack of a long well-orchestrated campaign against it.
- Identify and Accept Political Realities
It was not that hard to prophetize that the Marines would resist allowing planning to go forward on a new commercial airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. After all, the city’s and region’s representatives had begged – begged – the military not to close Miramar in the last Base Realignment and Closure process the military undertook. They pleaded with Congress and military brass to leave it as a fully functioning military installation.
So, it was not hard to see that the military would oppose all this talk about putting an airport at Miramar and it was therefore not hard to foresee the difficult campaign that stood in the way of Proposition A.
Backers of the airport authority’s ballot measure should have been able to see how contradictory, and therefore poorly, they stood in the military’s eyes. And they should have been able to see how this community, with only a nod from the Marines, would flare up angrily to “protect” the Marine base.
It is simply a reality that the local community can be rallied by a call to support the military. It was the challenge of new-airport backers to find either a different solution or to somehow deftly keep the debate from becoming one between them and the Marines.
It’s like in the 2005 special mayoral race in the city of San Diego. Donna Frye’s campaign should have recognized that expressed support for a new tax, however logical it may be, would turn out to be a disaster. She should have merely done what politicians usually do when confronted with things like tax policy and said something like “I’m not going to take anything off the table.”
It is simply a reality that support for taxes here can be demonized and exaggerated to the point where you are portrayed as literally stealing money from hardworking residents after kicking their dogs, of course.
There’s a unifying theme in all of this: humility. Confidence and posturing make for good, charismatic speeches but not good campaigns. You have to surround yourself with people who will tell you why you might not win, or why your position on an issue may not be the best.
If you imagine yourself losing, you might just win.