Ever since the election results began coming in, one question has nagged the Merry-Go-Round: How could so many Alamedans – more than 10,000 at last count – vote to re-elect Councilman Jim Oddie, knowing that he violated the City Charter, caused the City to pay nearly a million dollars to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, and then tried to stick the City with his legal bills?
Sure, we understand that the handful of Alameda firefighters who actually live here probably voted for Mr. Oddie to bolster the odds that he will still be on the dais the next time their union seeks Council approval for guaranteed raises. We also suspect that the heads of the local construction trades unions urged their Alameda members to reward Mr. Oddie with their votes for pushing to require union-job-generating “project labor agreements” on all projects done for the City. And, of course, the Councilman’s family and friends could be counted on to stand behind him. (Indeed, through October 20, daughter Sarah contributed $1,500 to his campaign, and local political figures and union leaders added $3,320.41.)
But what about ordinary Alameda voters, even those who consider themselves “progressives”? Why wouldn’t they echo the view expressed in an op-ed in this week’s Alameda Sun: “I agree with Oddie’s positions on other issues, such as rent control and our city’s sanctuary city status,” local author Tony Brasunas wrote. “Yet the fact remains that if one decries corrupt behavior in those with whom one disagrees, it is hypocritical to stand by while witnessing similar behavior in those with whom one agrees.”
Well, we have a theory.
The key word in the question we posed at the outset is “knowing.” A principled voter who knew the facts about Mr. Oddie’s role in the fire-chief scandal would be reluctant to vote for him. But what if the voter didn’t know those facts? What if all she knew about Mr. Oddie was how he portrayed himself, and how his supporters portrayed him, in his campaign literature?
In that case, it’s a whole different story.
People who read the local newspapers and/or follow the blogs may find it hard to accept the proposition that there are Alamedans who didn’t know that, in violation of the City Charter, Mr. Oddie tried to pressure City Manager Jill Keimach to appoint the former firefighters’ union president as fire chief, or who didn’t know that the City paid $945,000 in exchange for Ms. Keimach’s release of her contract and tort claims against the City, or who didn’t know that Mr. Oddie had submitted a claim to the City for at least $63,000 to cover his legal fees (much of which he already had paid with funds donated by organized labor and other supporters). Hell, even the East Bay Citizen covered the first two stories (albeit painting Mr. Oddie in as favorable a light as possible under the circumstances).
But how many Alamedans actually read the newspapers or follow the blogs? Pretty damned few, we’d bet (painful as that is to admit). As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said, “The single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh. . . , before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. . . . For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog.”
This isn’t just the Hon. Blair’s opinion. One doesn’t have to go far to find “study after study” – as Councilman-elect John Knox White would put it – demonstrating the dearth of knowledge among the general public about political leaders and issues. (As a starting point, check out the websites of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Pew Research Center.) H.L. Mencken once famously wrote that, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” No one ever went broke underestimating the public’s ignorance of civic affairs, either.
As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, there’s no reason to think that Alamedans are any better-informed than their peers elsewhere.
So it’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that many, if not most, Alameda voters knew nothing about Mr. Oddie’s perfidy. But if they weren’t reading the newspapers or following the blogs, where did they get information about him – and what did they find?
We suppose that the algorithms governing social media delivered “news” about Mr. Oddie to their users, but this likely served only to reinforce opinions they already had. And, of course, not every Alamedan has a Facebook or Twitter account. But everyone does get mail – and, during the election season, a steady flow of mailers from, or on behalf of, Mr. Oddie arrived in local mailboxes.
At our household, we received five separate mailers paid for by the Oddie for Council campaign. In addition, we got four mailers paid for by the Alameda firefighters’ union PAC, two of which combined praise for the union slate that included Mr. Oddie with attacks on rival Council candidates Tony Daysog and Robert Matz.
This inundation of campaign literature didn’t come cheap. The final accounting won’t be available until the semi-annual campaign finance disclosure statements are filed in January 2019, but the reports submitted so far show that the Oddie campaign spent $36,850.88 on “literature” and “postage” through October 20. This amount doesn’t include any spending on mailers during the two-plus weeks leading up to election day – of which there undoubtedly was some – but, as of the last report, Mr. Oddie had spent more on campaign literature than the total amount that two of the other five candidates – Councilman-elect Daysog and Mr. Matz, who lost out to Mr. Oddie for the third seat on Council by around 500 votes (at last count) – had raised for their entire campaigns.
(Not all of the Oddie campaign spending categorized as “literature” went for mailers. Mr. Oddie also paid to get himself listed on slate cards put out by various interest groups – and he covered all the bases, including shelling out $780 for a spot in the “Budget Watchdogs Newsletter,” which the Center for Responsive Politics characterizes as espousing a “conservative” viewpoint.)
Where did the money to pay for all these mailers (and other campaign expenses) come from? Our readers will not be surprised to learn that, through October 20, Mr. Oddie received $25,300 in cash from organized labor (45% of his total cash contributions), plus $5,904.48 in “non-monetary” contributions from the police and firefighters’ union PACs. After the last pre-election report was filed, three unions ponied up another $1,000 apiece, and the campaign committee for Mr. Oddie’s boss, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, chipped in another $8,958. Throw in the $12,600 he got from out-of-town corporations and Mr. Oddie had plenty of cash to spend on mailers.
Reviewing all of the mailers, the picture they paint of Mr. Oddie is one of a hard-working public servant who has compiled an impressive array of achievements in his four short years on Council – and who is committed to an aggressive agenda of good works for a second term.
As we previously reported, two mailers trumpet Mr. Oddie’s purported extensive efforts to improve traffic conditions throughout the City – one even gives him the sobriquet of “Traffic Buster.” Other mailers contain quotes from the Councilman averring that he “worked with the community to keep Alameda Hospital open,” and that, “working together” with others, he “established Central Alameda’s Emergency Operations Center, maintained rapid 911 response, filled more potholes than we would care to count and expanded City-School partnerships.”
These claims mix facts with, to put it politely, hyperbole. For example, Alameda Hospital does indeed remain open, but we’re not quite sure what Mr. Oddie personally did, or when, to accomplish that result. Nor are we aware of what “partnership” between the City and the School District he “expanded,” or how, or when. By the same token, the principal basis for taking credit for “establish[ing]” the EOC and “maintain[ing] rapid 911 response” is that Mr. Oddie voted to spend and borrow money to pay for the Taj Mahal on Grand Avenue and to keep up (and increase) existing fire-department staffing levels. And if he did something to fill potholes other than vote for the capital improvement budget, we don’t know what it is. But nuances like these would escape the ordinary voter.
Then come the promises:
- “I’ll continue the fight to provide all Alamedans with quality housing and the 911 services you rely on.”
- “I’ll continue to secure Alameda’s fair share of money for road repairs; provide jobs near housing; continue traffic calming; and increase school crossing/pedestrian safety.”
- “I’m proud to continue to stand with you in upholding these values – whether it’s to condemn hate in our schools or places of worship – or to demand the housing solutions critical to keeping future generations of families and our workforce in Alameda.”
- “My pledge to you for the next four years is to continue to address the priorities you’ve told me you want: rapid, 911 Fire, Police and Emergency Medical Services; traffic reduction; free and low-cost recreation programs; and housing options all generations can afford.”
Taken at face value, this track record and these commitments are praiseworthy indeed. Accordingly, it’s small wonder that Mr. Oddie saw fit to send out a separate mailer listing his endorsements from “Leaders throughout Alameda,” including Mr. Bonta and three other politicians; IAFF Local 689 president Jeff DelBono and his wife, School Board member and former teachers’ union president Gray Harris, and Mr. Oddie’s two daughters. The same mailer also contained a testimonial from an Alameda resident who “had a medical incident” and called 911 a few weeks ago – “I’m voting to re-elect Jim Oddie because he supports firefighters that provide the best care anywhere in the Bay” – as well as an excerpt from the Bay Area Reporter noting, with approbation, that Mr. Oddie is the “first out LGBT person known to have served on Alameda’s city council.”
None of Mr. Oddie’s mailers attacked any of the other candidates. For that he relied on the IAFF Local 689 PAC, whose campaign disclosure statements report a total of $11,500.77 contributed to Mr. Oddie or spent on his behalf through October 20.
We’ve already commented on the two fatuous hit pieces distributed by the PAC targeting Mr. Daysog and Mr. Matz. On the “positive” side, one mailer paid for by the firefighters’ union contained a “message” from Assemblyman Bonta urging Alamedans to vote for his wife for School Board and Messrs. Knox White and Oddie for Council, and another offered a “Dear Neighbor” letter lauding Ms. Bonta and Mr. Oddie as “exceptional Alamedans who have consistently addressed issues of concern to women and families.” The other two touted the union-backed Council candidates as “Leaders Who Fight for US – NOT Corporate Special Interests” and “Trusted Leaders Who Fight for Island Values and Results.”
(We had to chuckle at the statement in one mailer that Mr. Oddie had been “endorsed by Open Government leaders.” Presumably, the reference was to the most bombastic of our local labor bigwigs, Alameda Labor Council executive board member Mike Henneberry, who also happens to sit on the Open Government Commission.)
The bottom line is that if an Alameda voter relied on these mailers in deciding whom to cast her ballot for, Mr. Oddie surely would top the list. Concerned about traffic? Jim’s your man. Street conditions? Ditto. 911 response times? Ditto. Affordable housing? Ditto. “Island values”? Ditto. Indeed, a comparison of Mr. Oddie’s campaign literature with the “problems” and “priorities” identified by Alamedans in the July 2017 “Quality of Life” survey done for the City shows that the Councilman promised to solve virtually every major “problem” and to advance virtually every major “priority.”
(Conspicuous in its absence in the mailers was any mention of Mr. Oddie’s support for amending the rent stabilization ordinance to prohibit “no cause” terminations of tenancy. What ever happened to “Just Cause Jim”? Maybe the political consultant hired by the firefighters’ union for five grand – the Lew Edwards Group – advised him to keep his mouth shut about such a divisive issue.)
So that’s our theory: To the ordinary Alameda voter, Jim Oddie was not the unscrupulous lackey for the unions depicted by the news reports that the voter never read; rather, he was the indefatigable paladin for the people portrayed in the mailers that flooded her mailbox. And that’s why he managed to get enough votes to secure the third seat on Council.
We confess that we were reluctant to offer a theory based on the effectiveness of mailers without some evidence that they actually worked. A couple veteran observers of the local political scene assured us that this was the case, but they wouldn’t go on the record. So we looked online. Skipping over the pieces prepared by political consultants to drum up business, we found articles in publications as diverse as Politico, Slate, the Washington Post, and the Orlando Sentinel attesting to the efficacy of political direct mail even in the digital age.
Of course, absent exit polls (and we’re aware of none), no one can provide a definitive explanation for Mr. Oddie’s (relative) success. But we’ll go with our theory till we hear a more convincing one.
The Oddie and IAFF Local 689 campaign disclosure statements for 2018 are available at https://www.southtechhosting.com/AlamedaCity/CampaignDocsWebRetrieval/Search/SearchByJurisdiction.aspx.