Try this on for a theory: If Steve Francis loses his multi-million dollar bid for mayor this coming week, he will have two people to blame — Fabian Núñez and Don Perata.
He may have others to blame. And, certainly, he may have nothing to do but celebrate and start planning.
But Núñez, the former speaker of the California Assembly, and Perata, the leader of the state Senate, created an obstacle for Francis that could prove difficult to overcome even with $5 million to spend on the process.
What did they do?
They tried to keep their jobs. Because of term limits, they are about to lose their current posts — Núñez already stepped down from the speaker role — and they didn’t want to. They came up with a plan to extend the limits. Trouble was, they had to find a way to persuade voters to approve the plan before their time in office was up. So they decided to move California’s presidential primary to what became “Tsunami Tuesday” in early February. On that ballot, you’ll remember, they offered voters the chance to approve this.
Now, normally, to make the presidential primary more interesting, they would have moved the whole primary election — all of these legislative, mayoral, City Council and other races would move to February with the presidential primary. Again, though, the lawmakers wanted to have term limits extended before their own elections came up. Hence, the presidential primary stood alone along with the plea to extend term limits.
The regular statewide primary was left for June.
So what does this mean for Francis? Well, Francis is trying to unseat an incumbent mayor. Not an easy thing to do any year. But he’s doing a pretty good job — his ads are brutal and well made. He’s building what I said he needed to construct: the sense that there was a movement afoot, with endorsements coming every few days.
To win he had to begin early and strong. He had to slowly chip away at the mayor, one percent of the vote at a time. He had to introduce himself at the same time he disparaged the incumbent. And he seems to have hired the best people in the world to do both those things. His ads have pierced through to a layer of residents in this city that don’t follow this stuff day in and day out.
Francis’ commercials are introducing voters who might otherwise not be paying attention at all to things like the Sunroad scandal. People I know who hardly care about city politics know who Steve Francis is because of them.
At the same time, Francis’ biggest negative is the perception that he has flip-flopped on major issues like taxes and the environment and immigration. Changing your mind is a courageous thing for a politician to do, but with every new policy stance this guy takes, he’s having trouble communicating that it came about from a sincere evolution in his thinking as opposed to a cynical response whatever his pollster is telling him will resonate with the public.
Whether that criticism works or not may not matter. That negative critique isn’t making its way to the commercials — to that level of community discourse that is primarily informed by the commercials. The mayor’s fundraising has been anemic and he won’t be able to capitalize on Francis’ weaknesses in the airwaves the way Francis can his.
So if these less engaged voters who have been influenced by his commercials are in the voting booth and they see his name, they will react to it in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without this amazing investment.
That is, if they are in the voting booth. Will they be?
The problem for Francis is that the Legislature made this, essentially, a special election. If it were a normal election attached to a vote for governor, or president, many people — especially Democrats — might show up. And after they mark their choice for president, they might see Francis’ name for mayor and remember that he was the one who was not “Republican” and that he was the one who was pro-environment and pro-union, etc. And they might vote for him.
But, again, this is a special election. The only ones who are going to vote on June 3 are those who are uniquely interested in local politics. The others have no real big draw to the poll station.
What’s the major draw? There’s the city attorney race, maybe.
Turnout is going to be low. Francis could very well pull this thing off. But all the name recognition he’s building might mean little if people are not driven to the polls. It’s one thing to create an image in their heads — to offer voters an option when they make their way down to the mayor’s race to vote.
It’s another thing to generate a popular electoral movement where people go out of their way to vote for you. I’ve seen it happen once: I saw Donna Frye’s supporters turn out in droves and not only show up to vote for her but actually write her name in when it wasn’t there as a choice. But even her movement was unable to overthrow an incumbent.
Is what Francis is doing as powerful as that — or more? It better be. Even Frye didn’t get enough support to cleanly secure a victory.
If all Francis did, though, was build strong name recognition and even positive default impressions in people’s minds, he may have trouble in a low turnout election.
But if the race is continued to November because of burgeoning support for either Floyd Morrow or Eric Bidwell, it will force the incumbent mayor to compete with Francis on an amazingly exciting November ballot.
Think about it: We’ll probably have a captivating presidential race, a measure potentially banning gay marriage, and the finales of all of the elections we’re building up now. These factors will all drive up turnout in November.
Francis would have had a chance to benefit from all these new voters if this June election was combined with the presidential primary. But he has two guys primarily to blame that it was not.