If we have a representative democracy in this country, that means, or should mean, that elected officials are the representatives of the people – they take our place, and represent our interests and well-being.
One of the most pernicious ideas to gain currency in my lifetime is the notion that there is something inherently corrupting about being an elected official. Pete Schbarum’s Proposition 140 did immeasurable harm to this state, not only by making it more difficult for California to have a professional, experienced Legislature, but also by gratuitously enhancing the power of the Governor’s office. ( With a few exceptions, California’s Governors have not been noted for their vision and leadership.)
Instead of running down elected officials and making “politician” a term of obloquy, we should be treating our elected officials with the same respect we ourselves would wish to be treated. And we should expect them to be skilled professionals, and pay them accordingly. (Careful academic studies have shown that the most professional legislatures are the most responsive legislatures, contrary to right-wing myth.)
Governance is hard; it is not a job for amateurs, as Arnold Schwartznegger amply demonstrated.
The following poem was my reaction to the Kent State Shootings in 1970. It is yet another sonnet ( I seem to have written a lot of them). If I were writing the poem today, I would make the secret urge line more ambiguous, and I would make the link to Kent State more explicit. ( The shooters at Kent State were National Guardsmen, not police.) But on reflection, I think the little verse does a good job of focusing on the right issue.
A rock – no harmless little thing to throw.
My sister’s hit me once – I have a scar.
Today, an urged-by-anger youth I know
Threw his own rock, not very far.
Not far, but hard and straight, and at a man
In blue, a man who had his job to do.
His job – to put down riots if he can,
Despite his secret urge to kill a few.
And now, the youth lies bloody-red on stone,
And all the satisfaction he had known
When he threw the rock, must ebb away.
Perhaps the man in blue did well, you say.
I say, the picture says what must be said:
One man in blue, the other: glistening red.
[See my earlier post on polling here]
Candidates in down-ticket races have a problem – they need professional help to run their campaigns, but, unless they are independently wealthy, they usually can’t afford the price of a professional political consultant. For small cities (in my area of California, we have a number of incorporated cities with a population less than 4000), it is possible to talk and get to know each and every voter, but for larger municipalities, like my own city of Santa Rosa with an acknowledged population of around 175000 people, it is essentially impossible.
What are candidate for low-profile but important offices like the Santa Rosa City Council to do? I have spent a large amount of time over the last twenty-five years trying to help local candidates deal with this problem. And, as a result. I have a pretty good feel for the political landscape of this part of the world, But I am just one person, and the need is great (every two years). Some candidates, as you might expect, hire consultants from out of the area. Often this works fine – because the outside consultants have the sense to associate themselves with people who know the area. But there have been a number of races (I name no names) that have been badly screwed up because the consultants did a poll and failed to understand what the undecided electorate was like.
In an earlier post, I made the following statement: “Undecided voters are usually much more important to look at than those voters who have made up their minds,…but not always. It’s time to explain what I meant.
Undecided voters are usually important, because the assumption is ( and studies have shown this) that once a person has chosen a candidate to vote for, they don’t switch to another candidate very often – for any reason. Therefore, the theory is, if you can determine the demographics of the undecided voters, and if you have limited funds, your voter communications should focus on the undecideds.
But suppose you have good reason to believe that the undecided voters will not support your candidate. Imagine, for example, that your candidate is running in a large field for several at-large City Council seats. Further suppose that the majority of the undecided voters are Republican, that there are several Republicans running for Council, and that your candidate is a Democrat. ( Even in non-partisan races, party preference matters.) In these circumstances, your campaign should focus on turning out marginal democratic voters, rather on persuading the undecided. In either case, it is useful to know who the undecided voters are.
In an earlier post, I talked about how I got into polling for local elections, and gave a ;ist of key points about polls that local candidates should know. This is the first of several posts in which I will elaborate on that list. (Note: In all my posts on polling, I assume that the voters polled are random se;ections from the target universe.)
A poll is a snapshot of the electorate at a given point in time; it is not, by itself, a way to predict the outcome of an election. An experie3nced political adviser, who understands the background of the poll and the local political situation may be able to use the information obtained from a poll to make an informed guess as to whom the winner or winners might be, but the poll itself merely tells you who might be ahead at the time of the poll. Of course, if a candidate is twenty points ahead of his or her opponent two weeks before election day, one can reasonably infer that that candidate will win, but the poll is not really doing the prediction; it is the context.
Polls have other uses for local candidates besides calling the horse race. Polls can tell a candidate which campaign themes resonate with the voters; they can also tell which of your supporters are more attractive to the electorate. The wise candidate for, say, City Council, will focus on these aspects of polling and not on the question of who is the frontrunner.
When Pat and I first came to Sonoma County in 1984, she was already a committed activist, and I guess I was as well. We were certainly looking for ways to get involved in our new community.
One of the first issues we tackled was farmlands preservation. In the 70’s, two Sonoma County Supervisors, Chuck Hinkle and Bill Kortum had been recalled because of their opposition to residential development of rural areas. Concern about the effects of sprawl were very real.
Our new friend, Marty Roberts, recruited us as Board Members of the Sonoma County Farmlands Group, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting farmland from urban sprawl, and we were soon deeply involved in issues like adding an agricultural element to the General Plan, and creating Urban Growth Boundaries around our cities.
Pat and I both made literary contributions to the cause. Hers was the slogan: “Eat it or loose it!”, which appeared on Farmlands Group Tshirts and Sweatshirts. Mine was the following sonnet, which was read at the 1988 Farmlands Group Celebration:
“I am weary, the farmer said, and old,
All of my sons have left me long ago.
All of my friends have sold out for the gold.
No one wants the healthy food I grow.”
“Be of good cheer,” the citizen replied.
“Don’t be tempted by hopelessness and loot,
More and more people are not satisfied,
With haggard greens and faded foreign fruit.
More and more, your neighbors are aware
That these, our rolling hills, will not remain,
Nor verdant fields, unless we take care
To buy the good, rich produce they contain.
And so, let’s solemnly declare a pact.
Give me your hand – we’ll leave this land intact.”