Now that the election is – finally – over, it’s time for the punditry to begin.
If you’re looking for pronunciamentos, you won’t find them at the Merry-Go-Round. For true profundity you’ll need to seek out the published insights of the Inner Ring and their hangers-on, who’re able to divine – all without having seen a precinct-by-precinct count or an exit poll – why Alamedans voted as they did. (Hint: The hoi polloi are even more gullible than the cognoscenti were afraid they were).
For our part, we propose to examine two issues raised by the local election:
- How much does money matter?
- How well does a negative campaign work?
The answers aren’t as clear-cut as they may seem at first glance.
The results in both the Council and Mayoral races make it tempting to declare that the 2014 election shows that money doesn’t matter all that much in local races. Indeed, even such a shrewd observer as Dennis Evanosky of the Alameda Sun appears to have come to that conclusion.
And there is evidence to support it.
Start by comparing Council candidates Stewart Chen, D.C. and Frank Matarrese.
Through October 18, the date of the last required pre-election filing, Dr. Chen raised $46,280.70 – including “non-monetary contributions” by the Alameda firefighters’ union of $552.82 for food and drinks at a fundraiser and $1,755 as his share of the costs of the IAFF Local 689 slate mailer – and spent $34,051.95 on his campaign. During the last two weeks before the election, the Chen campaign took in another $1,500 in reportable large contributions from non-Alameda donors.
In addition to direct contributions, Dr. Chen also benefited from so-called “independent expenditures” by two mysterious organizations, the “Golden State Leadership Fund PAC” and “Alameda County Business and Technology Consortium 2014.” The former group reported spending $21,611.12 (through October 20) on pro-Chen mailers and another $14,000 (through October 25) on anti-Matarrese mailers. The latter group also sent out a pro-Chen (& Oddie)/anti-Matarrese mailer, but it hasn’t filed any of the required campaign disclosures.
Add it all up and the total is more than $80,000 – on a campaign for re-election to City Council. And what did Dr. Chen get for these big bucks? 9,113 votes and a third-place finish. He thus became the first incumbent Council member to lose his bid for re-election since 1994.
By contrast, through October 18, Mr. Matarrese raised $12,239.68 – about 15% of the Chen total — and spent $9,449.85. (He reported no large “late” contributions). Yet he finished first in the Council race with 11,103 votes and will be sworn in as Vice Mayor in December.
A similar disparity between spending and results exists for the Mayoral matchup.
Through October 18, Ms. Gilmore raised $41,127.11 – which includes “non-monetary contributions” by the firefighters’ union of $1,224.25 for food and drinks at two fundraisers and $1,755.30 for her share of the IAFF Local 689 slate mailer – and spent $46,849.37. Since then, she pulled in another $10,500 in reportable large contributions from three individuals ($5,000 from Perforce Software founder Chris Seiwald, $3,000 from Bladium owner Brad Shook, and $2,500 from Adam Elsesser, a Stanford graduate and CEO of a medical device company with offices in the Harbor Bay Business Park) and $2,000 from the carpenters’ union. She also received an “in-kind contribution” of $2,567.76 from the Bladium.
By contrast, through October 18, Ms. Spencer raised $9,477 and spent $3,491. (She reported no large “late” contributions). The Mayor thus outraised and outspent her challenger by a factor of 6:1. Yet, Ms. Spencer managed to eke out a 120-vote victory.
From these examples, it would be fair to conclude that the laurels don’t always go to the biggest spender. But it would be a mistake to discount the impact of money altogether.
We give you Jim Oddie.
Before he ran for Council, Mr. Oddie was well-known only to a small group of local Democratic party bigwigs and union honchos. Say his name aloud to an average voter (of a certain age) and she probably thought you were talking about a character in a cartoon (a dog or a skunk, depending on which program your mother let you watch) rather than about the champion of Alameda’s working families. So, if Mr. Oddie were to beat both an incumbent and a former Councilman, his primary task was to establish, and then sell, a new identity to the electorate.
Mr. Oddie worked assiduously toward that end. Two glossy brochures paid for by the Oddie campaign arrived in our mail box. So did the IAFF Local 689 slate mailer featuring Mr. Oddie as one of the firefighter union’s picks. In addition, we got a special letter signed by IAFF Local 689 president Jeff DelBono – imagine our surprise at getting personal mail with the firefighters’ union’s return address – informing us how, from his seat on its finance committee, Mr. Oddie managed to save Alameda Hospital. And we probably just missed the precinct walkers who knocked on doors, or the phone bankers who made calls, on Mr. Oddie’s behalf.
This is where money becomes so important. None of these promotional efforts comes cheap. But Mr. Oddie found a way to pay for them – largely from unions, other labor-endorsed candidates, and sources outside Alameda. Through October 18, Mr. Oddie raised $46,227.27 and spent $39,699.64. Since then, his campaign pulled in another $3,250 in reportable large contributions, $750 from the sheetmetal workers’ union and $2,500 from the campaign committee backing his boss, Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Based on the campaign disclosures filed through election day, of a total of $43,400 in itemized monetary contributions, Mr. Oddie got $13,550 from unions, $7,800 from other campaign committees (of which $7,500 came from Mr. Bonta), and $18,450 from individuals living, and businesses located, outside Alameda.
In addition, Mr. Oddie reported “non-monetary contributions” from the Alameda firefighters’ union of $266.96 for “fundraiser food,” $1,755.30 for the IAFF Local 689 slate mailer, and $8,872.64 for the DelBono letter.
For the $60,000+ spent by or on his behalf, Mr. Oddie surely got his name, and his new identity, in front of the electorate. And, having done so, he garnered 10,231 votes, good enough for a second-place finish and a seat on Council.
To us, the 2014 election confirms two truisms about Alameda politics. A race between two current or former officeholders – whose names already are familiar to voters – won’t necessarily be decided by the amounts spent by or for each candidate. But in a battle between an incumbent (or a former officeholder) and a previously little-known candidate, money does matter – because it can pay for the resources needed to gain name recognition.
As a two-term School Board member, Ms. Spencer didn’t have to introduce herself to Alameda voters. So she was able to run a low-budget campaign.
By contrast, as first-time Council candidates, Dr. Chen (in 2012) and Mr. Oddie (in 2014) did have to make sure that voters learned their names. And they were able to obtain the funds necessary to accomplish that result by soliciting and accepting cash from the special interests. Outside money made a difference for Dr. Chen in 2012. This year, it was Mr. Oddie’s turn.
Now to negative campaigns.
Start again with a comparison: Dr. Chen’s supporters – the Golden State PAC and the “Consortium” – mailed out at least three brochures attacking Mr. Matarrese and endorsing Dr. Chen. Earlier, Mr. Matarrese had been the victim of a “push poll” – whose sponsorship remains unclear – falsely suggesting he was responsible for the drowning death of Raymond Zack at Crown Beach.
By contrast, neither Mayor Gilmore nor her supporters sent out a single mailer denigrating Ms. Spencer. Likewise, as far as we know, there were no “push polls” done on her behalf, either.
Yet Dr. Chen finished a distant third in the Council race while Ms. Gilmore almost pulled off a narrow victory in her bid to be re-elected as Mayor. From this, it is tempting to conclude that a negative campaign doesn’t work – indeed, it may even backfire.
But not so fast.
It’s probably true that the negative ads didn’t help Dr. Chen’s case for another term. But the problem wasn’t their negative tone; it was their insipid content. For an attack ad to be effective, it at least should carry a patina of plausibility. The mailers sent out on behalf of the Chen campaign failed to meet even this lowly standard.
Two of them suggested that, having previously served two terms on Council, Mr. Matarrese was ineligible to run a third time. Not only was this statement false, it was so outrageously false that its intended audience may have dismissed it out of hand: Are these people really claiming Matarrese is breaking the law just by running for Council?
Likewise, the third ad implied that, when Mr. Matarrese left Council in 2010, the City was a mess – and it was all his fault. Maybe this accusation rang true for those already inclined to oppose Mr. Matarrese. But we suspect that the average voter didn’t quite remember things being so bad (or Mr. Matarrese being so important). Which would lead her to wonder: What are these people talking about?
The smear campaign against Mr. Matarrese thus may have failed not because it was negative – but because it was stupid. Who knows? A better-crafted set of attack ads indeed might have tarnished Mr. Matarrese and achieved the result for which the Chen backers paid so much money.
Even so, Dr. Chen’s defeat can be more readily explained on grounds other than the fallout from an ineffective negative campaign conducted on his behalf.
Unlike 2012, when the Democratic and labor establishments gave short shrift to Jeff Cambra in order to focus their efforts on electing Dr. Chen, this year Mr. Oddie was their fair-haired boy. The City of Alameda Democratic Club endorsed Mr. Oddie, but not Dr. Chen. (Indeed, the Club came close to endorsing Mr. Matarrese as well). The firefighters’ union sent out the special letter touting Mr. Oddie’s triumphs but saying nothing about Dr. Chen.
Likewise, Dr. Chen never managed to worm his way into the Inner Ring’s favor during his two-year term, and they scampered away from him at election time. The capper came when Ring-leader and Planning Board member John Knox White decreed that only Mr. Oddie deserved a vote for Council.
And, of course, lurking in the background was Dr. Chen’s, shall we say “troubles,” with the law. Back in 1993, the Councilman was indicted 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. Not surprisingly, Dr. Chen did not include these facts in the biography he presented to voters when he ran for Council in 2012.
The Alamedan and the East Bay Citizen broke the story last April, but neither of Dr. Chen’s opponents ever mentioned it at the candidate forums we attended, nor did any hit pieces appear on voters’ doorsteps. Nevertheless, you didn’t have to search very far on the blogs or on Facebook to find comments from Alamedans who said they’d never vote for Dr. Chen because of his past.
We are not surprised that Mayor Gilmore did not attack Ms. Spencer personally at either of the two campaign forums the Mayor’s schedule permitted her to attend. It’s not that Ms. Gilmore is incapable of publicly belittling those who disagree with her; just ask the Crab Cove initiative advocates who spoke at the July 1 Council meeting. Rather, we got the sense from watching Ms. Gilmore at the two forums that she regarded Ms. Spencer as somehow beneath her – and therefore not worthy of attack. (For his part, Mr. Oddie felt no such compunction, falsely accusing Ms. Spencer at one forum of never supporting a school tax).
More puzzling is why the Mayor’s handlers and the “independent” groups supporting her chose not to follow the lead of the Chen campaign and unleash a barrage of attack ads against Ms. Spencer. We suppose it’s possible that they doubted the efficacy of negative advertising in general. But that’s hard to believe, since Duffy & Capitolo, the political consulting firm hired by Ms. Gilmore (and by Dr. Chen and Mr. Oddie), has been a major donor to the Golden State Leadership Fund PAC, one of the shadowy entities that slung mud at Mr. Matarrese.
Instead, the Mayor’s strategists probably eschewed negative ads because they didn’t think they were necessary. Maybe they bought into the received wisdom among Inner Ringers that Ms. Spencer had no chance of winning. (Only 16% of the respondents to the admittedly unscientific pre-election poll conducted by School Board member Mike McMahon predicted a Spencer victory). So why bother?
Or maybe they were confident that they could count on the Mayor’s cheerleaders to poison the blogs and social media with all the anti-Spencer venom that Alamedans could stomach – there is even an anonymous Tumblr site devoted entirely to denouncing Ms. Spencer. So why pile on?
In fact, you can find support for the chutzpah theory in recent comments made by Mr. Knox White himself. The day Ms. Gilmore conceded, Mr. Knox White posted a blog comment in which, after decrying “partisan’s [sic] spinning the meaning of the election to fit their own personal narrative,” he stated, “In July, a poll of Alameda voters was done, 71% said the city was moving in the right direction the highest in 10 years.” If so many voters were “happy with the direction the city is headed,” Ms. Spencer must have won only because the electorate “never had the opportunity to understand how Gilmore helped shape and guide what it is that they like.”
Put to one side for a minute the arrogance – characteristic of Mr. Knox White and his ilk – of attributing Ms. Spencer’s victory to voter ignorance. What’s this poll of Alameda voters he’s talking about? It wasn’t commissioned by the City. We know that because we asked City Manager John Russo, who responded almost immediately: “I am unaware of any such poll. Certainly, the City did not conduct a poll.” Nor had any poll of Alameda voters previously been reported. When we asked Michele Ellson of The Alamedan, who keeps tabs on such things, whether she had ever heard of the poll to which Mr. Knox White referred, she said she had not.
So, unless the poll exists solely in Mr. Knox White’s imagination, it’s reasonable to believe it was paid for by the Gilmore campaign or her supporters. And it’s not hard to discern the strategic message sent to an incumbent by a poll purporting to show that 71% of voters favor the status quo: Promote your many “achievements” and promise more of the same. Don’t bother attacking your opponent – you don’t need to.
In fact, that pretty well describes the strategy actually employed by Ms. Gilmore. Sure, it didn’t work, but if Ms. Gilmore thinks she’s entitled to a refund on the $26,446.71 she paid to Duffy & Capitolo through October 18 (and undoubtedly more thereafter), that’s between her and them.
Would Ms. Gilmore have been able to prevail if her strategists had decided to let the dogs out against Ms. Spencer? You can argue it either way. Perhaps a blizzard of brochures painting Ms. Spencer as an intransigent obstructionist would have dissuaded Alamedans from marking their ballots for her and thus reduced her vote count. On the other hand, perhaps citizens who were sick of negative campaigns and unsure about their choice for Mayor credited Ms. Gilmore for taking the high road and thus increased her tally.
We’re thus forced to end with no definitive answer to either of the questions with which we began this column. Money may have mattered for Mr. Oddie. Negative campaigning may have hurt Dr. Chen; its absence may have hurt – or helped – Mayor Gilmore. If you want to know for sure, you should turn to the Inner Ringers for the authoritative word. Just watch for the smoke to start blowing out of . . . the chimney.
The campaign disclosure statements for all of the candidates are posted on the City Website: http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0.