How to get elected to Council

The Merry-Go-Round is pleased to be first to publish a questionnaire for prospective candidates for Alameda City Council.

We have only three questions:

  • Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of Council?
  • Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Planning Board or the Hospital Board (formally known as the Alameda Health Care District Board)?
  • Are you willing and able to show sufficient respect to gain the endorsement of the Alameda firefighters’ union?

If you answered “Yes” to one or more of these questions, we’ll volunteer to manage your campaign for a fee less than Duffy & Capitolo or Next Generation would charge you.  If you answered “Yes” to all of them, we’ll even give you a discount.

On the other hand, if you answered “No” to all of our questions, we’ve got some advice for you:  Toss all the state and city election paperwork and hold onto the filing fee.  You ain’t got a chance.  The only candidate to get elected to Council in the last 14 years without having any of these credentials is . . . Doug deHaan (in his first race in 2004).  And we all know that Mr. deHaan is one of a kind.

Why are we so confident?  Because, based on data for Alameda general elections going back to 2000, an affirmative answer to our three questions predicts the winners in Council races pretty accurately.  Here are the headlines from those seven Council races:

  • Every incumbent or former elected officeholder who ran for Council was elected.
  • Three sitting members of the Planning Board, and three sitting members of the Hospital Board, moved directly from those Boards onto Council.
  • Seven of the 10 candidates endorsed by the Alameda firefighters union – and six of seven since 2006 — won their Council races.

This chart summarizes the data:Election analysis 1

Election analysis 2Election analysis 3Thus far the facts.  Now for the punditry.

The impact of incumbency on success at the polls is easy to understand:  It produces name recognition.  As much as we’d like to believe that the average voter casts her ballot only after a careful study of the candidates’ qualifications and positions, we’re not going to kid ourselves:  If the voter sees a familiar name on the ballot, that may be enough to get her vote.

This phenomenon may explain why no incumbent Council member failed to get re-elected in the seven elections covered by our survey.  But the impact of prior service extends even to former Council members.

The most recent example is Tony Daysog, who was first elected to Council in 1996 and served for 10 years; sat out the 2008 election; ran unsuccessfully for Mayor in 2010, and then returned to win a Council seat in 2012.  By that time Mr. Daysog had been in the public eye for 16 years, and, a lot of people, if not all of Alameda, surely knew his name.

Former Mayor Beverly Johnson provides another example.  After four years on Council, Ms. Johnson was elected Mayor in 2002 and served two terms in the City’s highest-profile elected position.  Small wonder that, when she termed out as Mayor in 2010, Ms. Johnson was able to run for Council and squeak into a third-place finish that kept her at City Hall.

The correlation between Planning Board membership and election to Council may not be so obvious.  The high-minded view is that, since the Planning Board is the most important governmental body in the City other than Council – or, these days, the City Manager’s office – voters may regard service on the Planning Board as excellent preparation for a seat on Council.

Bear in mind, however, that the Mayor appoints the members of the Planning Board.  Thus, whenever the Inner Ring wants to groom an up-and-comer for Council (or higher office), appointment to the Planning Board is one way to introduce her into the political system.  Under this view, the Planning Board is like a farm team – the “Dons”? – for aspiring politicians.  Once a person is on it, she just has to wait for the summons to take the next step up.

A similar explanation could be given for the relationship between the Hospital Board and Council.  True, since 2002, the Hospital Board has been an elective, not appointive, office.  But people with political ambitions – “Bonta-bes?” – may see a race for Hospital Board as a warm-up for future campaigns.  In fact, Council members who started their political career this way tended to spend little time on the Board – two years for Stewart Chen, D.C., three years for Rob Bonta – before moving on to run for Council.

The reasons that an endorsement by the firefighters union carries so much weight are not mysterious, either.  It’s possible that voters hold our firefighters in such high esteem that they defer to Local 689’s political judgment.  And, out-dated as the idea may seem, there still may be voters who look for the union label when they cast their ballots.

We suspect, however, that the benefit conferred by the firefighters’ union endorsement lies not so much in its persuasive power but in the financial support that comes with it.

The data shows that firefighters’ union-endorsed candidates had a mixed track record in the three earliest elections in our survey:  one win, two losses.  But then the union began doling out real money to elect its favorites.  (For example, the Local 689 PAC spent $15,845 on a multi-candidate mailer and contributed $11,500 directly to individual Council candidates in the 2012 election).  It’s probably no coincidence that the union’s success rate improved significantly:  Since 2006, six of its endorsees for Council have won and only one has lost.

Other than Mr. deHaan, who seems able to defy the odds as well as the party line, the data reveals only three outliers.  Both Horst Breuer (2002) and Jeff Cambra (2012) lost despite being endorsed by the firefighters’ union.  (Breuer also was a sitting Planning Board member when he ran).

Current Vice Mayor Ashcraft was even unluckier.  She lost her first Council race in 2004 even though she was a sitting Hospital Board member and a firefighters’ union endorsee.  She lost again in 2010 even though she was running as president of the Planning Board, on which she’d served for four years.  (That year, Mr. Bonta and Lena Tam got the firefighters’ union’s nod).  Her persistence – not to mention the return of the Local 689 endorsement – finally paid off in 2012.

So what does this mean for the 2014 election?

The incumbency factor bodes well for Councilman Chen and for former Councilman Frank Matarrese.  If Dr. Chen loses, he will be the first incumbent to be defeated for re-election since before 2000 (when our survey starts).  And the Daysog and Johnson precedents suggest that the name recognition resulting from having served for eight years on Council will give Mr. Matarrese a leg up.  Mr. Matarrese may have been absent from the public scene longer than Mr. Daysog was, but he appears recently to be seeking to raise his profile by publishing op-ed pieces in the Sun and the Alamedan.

(We should note that both Dr. Chen and Mr. Matarrese also can point to stints on the Hospital Board – Dr. Chen, from 2010 through 2012 – or the Planning Board – Mr. Matarrese, from 2000 to 2002 – on their resumes).

The wild card is what the firefighters’ union will do.

The union not only endorsed Dr. Chen in 2012, but the Local 689 PAC spent $10,000 the week before the election to print and distribute brochures touting his candidacy.  The good doctor was suitably grateful.  Indeed, the first person he thanked, both in a letter to the editor and in his maiden Council speech, for winning his seat was Local 689 political director (and now Fire Captain) Jeff DelBono.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Chen loyally has promoted the firefighters’ union’s agenda during his two years on Council.  Indeed, he even showed up at a Council meeting two weeks before he was sworn in to read a speech supporting the new public-safety contracts that gave the firefighters and cops $7.2 million in wage and benefit increases.

The firefighters’ union undoubtedly would not hesitate to reward Dr. Chen for his service with an endorsement and financial support this time, were it not for the recent disclosures in the Alamedan about the Councilman’s prior troubles with the law.  (Dr. Chen was indicted in 1993 on 16 felony insurance fraud-related counts and two grand theft charges for allegedly falsifying medical records.  He cut a deal whereby he pled guilty to two misdemeanors, paid $50,000 in restitution, and was placed on two-year’s probation).  For the union to back Dr. Chen for re-election, it would have to conclude that the public will forgive – or, more likely, forget – these youthful indiscretions.

For his part, Mr. Matarrese once was a firefighters’ union favorite, having been endorsed by, and gotten contributions from, the union and its PAC in both of his successful Council races.  But when Mr. Matarrese ran for Mayor in 2010, the Local 689 endorsement, and $14,300 of PAC money, went instead to Marie Gilmore.  Whether Mr. Matarrese will try to win his way back into the firefighters’ good graces – or whether they will take him back – is unknowable, at least to us.

We’ll end with a data-driven prediction. Put aside the incumbency factor that will benefit Dr. Chen, and, perhaps, Mr. Matarrese.  Suppose Local 689 isn’t too happy with either of them.  So look for a potential candidate who is a sitting member of the Planning Board or Hospital Board whom the firefighters’ union would be eager to endorse.  Whom do you come up with?

No, Dr. Bobby Deutsch, it’s not you.  Planning Board member and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 5 Communications Director Mike Henneberry, front and center, please.  The self-anointed spokesmen for the working families of Alameda may turn their lonely eyes to you.


Data on past municipal elections, including candidate biographies and lists of endorsers, can be found on the Smart Voter Website.  The site states that the candidates themselves provided the information.

Campaign disclosure reports for elections back through 2000 can be found at the City of Alameda Website.

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Firefighters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How to get elected to Council

  1. Nancy Hird says:

    How depressing!

  2. Patsy says:

    Even though we’ve all kind of known this, thanks Bob for the research which proves our suspicions. Keep up the good work.

  3. William says:

    Excellent input. Your delivery is spot-on and always interesting. It has always been the case that politicians need support from various sources. And, once the receive that support, they are bound to offer some level of “pay-back.” It’s the way it is throughout the state and the country. Both effective leaders and less effective leaders need financial support.

  4. notmayberry says:

    Didn’t you forget to indicate Gilmore’s Fire endorsements? She certainly has it now, if not before.

    • The piece only dealt with Council, not Mayoral, races.
      The firefighters’ union was not listed in the data available on Smart Voter as an endorser for Ms. Gilmore in her Council races in either 2004 or 2008, and I could find no other evidence that the union endorsed her either time. (It did endorse Ms. Ashcraft in 2004).
      The 2010 Mayoral election is, of course, a different story. As the piece points out, not only did the firefighters’ union endorse Ms. Gilmore in that race but its PAC contributed $14,300 directly to her campaign. (This does not include the $9,385.83 the PAC spent on an anti-deHaan mailer).

  5. dave says:

    City Hall is overflowing with corruption. That word implies Huey Long-style bales of cash changing hands, but ours is the legal variety: parties, most notably the IAFF, hand over the cash and are rewarded with ever-juicier contracts. That it’s legal doesn’t make it right, and it is the antithesis of good government.

    We need a new ordinance requiring council members to recuse themselves from any votes that involve city funds going to an organization that contributed to their campaigns.

  6. BrazenDan says:

    Thank you for the article. I have been thinking along these lines for years. It seems to happen in many small towns this way because the masses don’t see much to get concerned about. Not that there isn’t, but the average working stiff just doesn’t have the time to get into city politics. As you well know, our two local papers have not won any awards for investigative journalism, so it is hard for the average resident to be aware of much besides the pet kitty of the week.
    Recently, I had someone telling me that folks here vote by their ethnic identification and that’s how Daysog, Chen, and Tam got in. I am not sure I agree, but it could easily be a big factor. I am still a bit amazed that Ashcraft completely skipped all the candidates forums, yet she got enough votes to become vice mayor. That just goes to show that those things are almost useless in terms of informing the public and getting votes. I think Ashcraft ran in 2010 just to get the name out there, hoping the second time in 2012 would get her in. and it did.
    Now we need another insightful article on how to get yourself onto the planning board! How many city council butts does one need to kiss for THAT?

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