Wednesday, June 4, 2008 | The trouble with Steve Francis’ campaign for mayor could not have been symbolized better than it was with his odd political courtship of City Councilwoman Donna Frye.

She said nice things about him. She agreed to let those things become part of his campaign’s propaganda. But she never took the extra step to actually endorse him. I’m not sure what an “endorsement” means, but there is, apparently, a line between saying someone would be a good mayor and actually endorsing them for the office.

Francis long ago signaled that he was going to take a leftward and populist turn in this race. I noted the potential several months ago. As his journey through the environmentalists’ meetings, the union halls and the city’s urban core came to a head, some eyes turned to Frye — would Francis get the ultimate stamp of populist/liberal approval?

Nope. She just said some nice things.

And that’s how it went for Francis. To unseat an incumbent mayor in San Diego, the Earth has to move. Everything has to line up perfectly. You can’t come up short. If you go for support from labor unions, you can’t just get one union to support you or two. You can’t just get three. You’ve got to get all the unions and the union of unions — the Labor Council — to not only endorse you but work their asses off for you.

The stars have to align to unseat an incumbent. They can’t just form some kind of line graph from an economics textbook.

Francis spent millions of dollars. Started early. Had brutal television commercials and a responsive professional staff of campaign veterans. His website was extraordinary. His signs and mailers were as sharp as anything ever seen in the city.

What did he miss?

Sincerity. You can’t buy it. No high-priced consultant or aide can train you to communicate it.

What is sincerity in politics? For endless examples, turn to the archives of politicians, or wanna-be politicians giving the best speeches of their lives … right after losing an intense election. Why did Al Gore, or Ron Roberts and Donna Frye for that matter, give such good speeches after their elections when it didn’t matter?

Because the only thing you have to say at that point is what you really sincerely feel: gratitude toward your supporters, relief that it’s over and deep disappointment. You can talk about all of these things without worrying how it might look or how it might affect your campaign. And, man, is that the secret for speaking well.

Francis had trouble with sincerity. And the trouble came from a simple source: He took on a lot of new positions this time around — a lot of new stances and angles on everything from the environment to whether the city needed to raise taxes or not. After courting developers in his campaign three years ago, Francis turned on the powerful population of builders and argued that they were the scourge of the city. Some of his policy initiatives were very good ideas. Others were vague and made vaguer when the consequences of presenting them made their presenter squeamish.

And Francis struggled. At a live television and radio debate last week, the candidate fumbled mightily with both his ideas and his condemnation of the incumbent mayor. There was a simple reason why: Having so many new and different positions can make a person awkward and unsure. Only someone passionate and well versed about their goals can speak convincingly about them in tough public forums.

Francis may have believed most of his ideas were good ones. He may have — over time — become fully committed to all of them. But they weren’t organic to him. They were manufactured in response to a sophisticated polling and strategizing effort.

The effort was meant to attract all of those liberals, fiscal conservatives, and residents frustrated with the power of developers. They heard Francis say all the right things to them. But they didn’t all believe him.

That wouldn’t have mattered so much except that, like I said, everything has to work perfectly in sync to unseat an incumbent. All of those disaffected with the current mayor had to turn to Francis. Not just most of them or some of them — all of them.

And that was the problem.

A lot of people will see what happened and conclude that, like those before him, Francis learned you can’t buy an election in San Diego. That’s not true. I bet someone could use their money to become mayor.

They’d have to make sure, however, that they believe in what they are going to say to people. Because if they are even just slightly hesitant, they shouldn’t even bother.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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