Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 12, 2007

From handshakes to high-tech

Palo Alto candidates choosing YouTube, Facebook and Evite to entice voters

by Becky Trout

If the run-up to the 2008 presidential race is any sort of bellwether, political campaigns, even local ones, are no longer being waged just in person and in the media but on a third front as well -- cyberspace.

Hop onto the Internet and slick Web sites present a deluge of targeted blogs, online videos and virtual networks (think Sign Language Interpreters for Hillary).

Comparatively, the local intersection of technology and politics is less complex -- but still, offering a Web site, or more, has become a powerful and nearly necessary component of any serious, local campaign, according to former councilman Gary Fazzino and Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss.

"It's kind of surprising, (the Internet) hasn't really been a major tool until now," Fazzino said.

Palo Alto-based political technology consultant Donnie Fowler said campaigns have been using technology for some time, "but it's tended to be more backroom stuff -- spreadsheets and data management. Now it's really become a (critical) tool."

In this campaign season, local candidates are generating buzz for their use, or avoidance, of cyberspace to raise money, expound on issues and provide biographies replete with childhood photos.

The November elections will fill three seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education and four spots on the City Council. Voters can pick from six school board candidates and 11 council contenders.

Nearly all candidates agree their Web sites and other technological efforts comprise only part of their overall campaign, and they don't expect to win the race solely by offering a professional-quality site.

But this is Palo Alto: birthplace of PayPal and headquarters of Facebook. Wired candidates are experimenting -- some eagerly, some gingerly -- with the latest online offerings and digital doodads.

A few examples:

* The youngest council candidate Yiaway Yeh, 29, plans to regularly create YouTube videos about his campaign themes. In the first video, Yeh, who grew up in Palo Alto, introduces himself and takes viewers to a few favorite haunts of his youth.

* Several candidates, including at least council contenders Sid Espinosa, Mark Nadim, Yeh and school board candidate Wynn Hausser, can accept online donations.

* Hausser used Evite, an online event-organizing site, for campaign events to save paper, according to his campaign manager, former mayor Vic Ojakian.

* Council candidate Nadim and school-board candidates Claude Ezran and Pingyu Liu said they created their own Web sites. Nadim has a background in technology; Ezran does not. Liu is a former scientist.

* Espinosa and Yeh have created Facebook groups. Yeh said he has used Facebook to hone his campaign language -- what is "infrastructure," anyway? -- and received valuable comments from online denizens.

* Espinosa supporters can purchase hats, bags, pins or even a T-shirt for their dogs on his Web site. Then, they can submit photos modeling the gear to participate in the "Where in the world is Sid's logo?" feature, which displays photos of fans sporting Espinosa's logo.

* School board incumbent Camille Townsend has said she plans to blog and provide a link to a YouTube video with national educational materials.

But not all candidates are taking the tech route. As of the Weekly's press deadline, council candidates Victor Frost, Tim Gray, Stella Marinos, William Ross, Greg Schmid and Smokey Wallace and school-board hopeful Pingyu Liu have not created Web sites.

Marinos, a nurse new to politics, said she didn't have a site because of the time and skills needed to build one.

Wallace, ironically a retired high-tech executive, said he isn't sure if he'll make a Web site either, although he has the skills and vacant URLs to do so.

"I'm running a viral campaign," Wallace said. He has met with his friends and acquaintances and hopes their support, once spread further, will elect him.

"With a couple hundred people out beating the drums for me, I don't think I need a Web site," Wallace said, adding he does plan to complete a questionnaire for the League of Women Voters-administered Smart Voter site at www.smartvoter.org.

Technology has figured prominently in local elections for decades, but mainstays of state and national elections -- most radio and television stations -- reach too many people and cost too much for Palo Alto candidates.

That hasn't stopped candidates from experimenting with new ways to reach voters, however.

In 1988, then-Congressional candidate Anna Eshoo capitalized on the widespread ownership of video-cassette players in the district. She distributed about 110,000 videotapes to swing voters, capturing the attention of the national media, including the New York Times.

The eight-minute video showed Eshoo, now a congresswoman, challenging the nation's "sacred cows" -- captured on the cover as cartoon bovines -- according to Mary Hughes. Hughes, a political consultant, was Eshoo's campaign manager at the time.

But to deliver the high-tech tapes, the campaign used the old-fashioned method of knocking on voters' doors, Hughes said.

The video garnered attention but wasn't enough for Eshoo to best law professor Tom Campbell for the seat.

Eshoo's experiment illustrates two widely accepted maxims governing the effective use of technology in local campaigns: It must be paired with traditional efforts, such as face-to-face meetings, mailings and forums; and it isn't enough to guarantee a win.

"They have to have the credentials to be elected," Fazzino said.

"(Technology) definitely has not supplanted the idea of concerned citizens talking to each other," current Vice Mayor Larry Klein said. "In the last few weeks of a campaign, people talk to each other and a consensus arrives."

Even tech-savvy candidates Espinosa and Yeh said they plan to spend plenty of time interacting, in person, with voters.

"The most enjoyable part is when you have the chance to ask someone, 'What do you hope for in your community?'" Yeh said. "That's not as easy to do over technology."

Eshoo's videotape blitz didn't immediately inspire other candidates to turn toward tech.

In 1994 Palo Alto made headlines by creating the first municipal Web site, but it wasn't until later that decade that sites became widespread in local races, according to Fazzino, Kniss and Ojakian.

Current Councilman Peter Drekmeier's interactive surveys, deployed during his 2005 campaign, mark another milestone in Palo Alto's tech-trajectory.

At several forums, Drekmeier said he distributed handheld keypads that allowed attendees to weigh-in on issues following a discussion. The group's opinions would then be displayed on a large screen, Drekmeier said.

"It was one of the most interesting things," Drekmeier said. "A lot of people felt it was a great way to learn about the community."

He offered a word of caution for current candidates.

"(Technology) can help you be efficient, but at the same time, if you neglect good old-fashioned grassroots, then I think you're really going to struggle."

Web sites, e-mail and other forms of technology simply offer candidates another way to reach voters, candidate Espinosa said.

"You look for where people are communicating and how they are communicating," Espinosa said.

Against a backdrop of continually broadcast messages of all sorts, candidates need to figure out how to break through the background roar, several consultants said.

"People have less time and more choices, so to communicate a political message to them, we're always in search of an attention-getting, clean, direct way to say, 'Here's why this issue or candidate should be important to you,'" consultant Hughes said.

But often, the best way to grab voters' attention is to first meet them in person, candidates and experts agreed.

Then, if they want more information, refer them to a Web site packed with background information.

"People ask about the issues and ... they really want to understand but often don't have the time right then," Espinosa said.

Nadim said he has printed cards he hands out to direct voters to his Web site.

Providing a method of donating online isn't new in this race, but it's become important, several candidates agreed. Potential donors become a "bit miffed" if they can't do everything online, Kniss said.

Nadim said he hadn't planned to include a donation link on his site but was convinced by friends it was necessary.

Yeh said he's raised about 10 to 15 percent of his more than $4,000 fund through online donations.

With YouTube videos, Yeh said he hopes to involve non-traditional voters and generate discussion. He said he's been reaching out to high-school students, whom he hopes will introduce the technology to their older, voting relatives.

He calls it an "experiment," a term used by other candidates to describe their online ventures.

"Palo Alto has always been very connected with cutting-edge technology, not being afraid to see what this does in terms of discourse," Yeh said.

Tech campaigns do have drawbacks, however, several insiders said.

Many older voters still rely on newspapers and other sources and will miss out on the candidate's online efforts.

Then, too, it can be difficult for candidates to present themselves as people online, not just positions.

"The risk with technology is you lose the human side of the campaign," Yeh said.

Candidates also have to be very careful to analyze and edit everything they post online or write in an e-mail.

"It's very easy to make mistakes," Kniss said.

She said candidates worry about putting information up that could provide opponents with fodder or a candidate could regret later.

Fazzino and Kniss, in particular, said they were concerned about the effect of anonymous attacks on candidates online.

"You can't unblog a blog," Kniss said, noting that several female candidates she tried to recruit to run for council said they didn't want to run because of the potential personal attacks made in cyberspace.

But criticism -- both constructive and destructive -- has always been around, Klein countered. It didn't arise with the Internet.

"That's politics," Klein said.

Voters can also be overwhelmed with too much information, Kniss said, noting that although she supports Hillary Clinton for president, she deletes two or three e-mails from Clinton's campaign every day.

School board candidate Barbara Klausner said she thought candidates should create a "collective action agreement" to set limits on creating and disseminating campaign information.

E-mail lists of Palo Alto voters aren't even available yet though, Ojakian said, adding the Hausser campaign investigated using e-mail to save paper.

And even Yeh doesn't have plans to send text messages to residents' cellular devices, as is the latest thing on the national scene, according to Hughes and Fowler.

With 33,933 voters, Palo Alto's small size ensures that technology won't take over the politicking, Fazzino said.

"Face-to-face is still the preferred way of getting your message across."

Still, Web sites are here to stay, and technology, by speeding up communications, may very well intensify local races.

"There's always going to be a balance," consultant Fowler said. "The Internet is not replacing politics. The Internet is enhancing politics."

Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at btrout@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Danny, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2007 at 2:45 pm

Ah, election year. Let the festivities begin!


Posted by Ballot geek, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2007 at 3:39 pm

I can't wait to see the youTube responses to some candidate positions. That's going to be fun!


Posted by AnnaBacker, a resident of Duveneck School
on Sep 11, 2007 at 11:24 pm

Yiaway Yeh continues to impress me, I don't know a whole lot about him but everything I encounter continues to be good. I'll eventually expect to hear some bad news, and he is young, but I think the type of forward-thinking exposed above is exactly what this Council needs. Go Yiaway!


Posted by Forum Reader, a resident of Stanford
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:56 pm

One thing we learn ahead of time from the newspapers is, who they will support. The pictures in the paper and in this story make it pretty clear who is getting the free publicity.
In the case of a female candidate who probably won't get the Weekly's nod, the featured photo was of her husband and son. Not her.


Posted by James Willard, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 14, 2007 at 9:58 am

-Forum Reader- Thanks for the brilliant and observant comment. Maybe if you had taken time to read the headline, you would have noticed that this article was not a Council race profile, but rather an expose on ways that the candidates are using technology to benefit their candidacy. If the article had been about female candidates or kickoff events or candidate positions on infrastructure, perhaps your point would be valid. Also, maybe the male candidates should complain when the LWV pays less attention to them.


Posted by Ezran fan, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Where's Claude Ezran's CORRECTLY spelled website in the Weekly print edition?

This deserves a correction


Posted by Jon, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 16, 2007 at 4:58 pm

While the forums are in a sense regarded as the Wild West, it is good to know I can still tune into reality and hear more respectful dialog in an organic manner.


Posted by Tim Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 8, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Hi, this is Tim Gray. At the time this article was printed, I did not have web site, as I was a late entrant to the election. (I entered at the last minute in response to an appeal for Citizen Participation.) I am participating now with lots of information at www.Vote4Gray.com .

Please visit and help me learn more about our City government.


Posted by Bebe, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 8, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Tim Gray. Thanks for posting here. I think this is an under-used resource for candidates of local office. You may not get a terrifically large audience, but those who post here are people who probably are in closer touch with the issues than the 'average voter'.

That being said, I was pretty disappointed with your website. You may have noted (or should if you will click around) that there is an ongoing debate about how well the city is spending our money, and about what are the proper priorities for our city.

Your first "issue" is "Global Climate Protection". We already have a mayor who loves this trendy, publicity-generating buzzword, focus on which allows her to ignore the more difficult and boring job of running a small town government. Sad to see that you think it is something you mention prominently in your website - maybe so you can avoid discussion of these hard issues.

You also talk about sustainable budgeting. But I don't see anything on your site about what - specifically - you might cut from our bloated budget to help us become more sustainable. IN that regard, you mention the library/police bonds. If you will read this site, you will see there is a LOT of disagreement among posters here about whether the city establishment is playing straight with us about the need for these projects - at least in the form they're currently envisioned, and especially about how they should be paid for. There are quite a few who think that voters should turn down the bonds in part as a protest to the way the city runs our finances. How - specifically do you come down on these issues?

The brightest spot I see in your site is that you recognize (unlike almost any other candidate apparently) that the city is fuzzing up the accounting between the utilities and general funds - presumably so they can spend without the pesky bother of raising taxes. I hope if nothing else, you will pursue this line of inquiry. Forcing honesty on that would be a great contribution to our city - whether you win or lose.

Thanks again for posting, Tim Gray.


Posted by Old fashioned, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 8, 2007 at 4:02 pm

Call me old fashioned, but I expect people who run for leadership positions to already know a lot about the organization they want to lead. I'm amazed at how uninformed several of the candidates are.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 19, 2007 at 10:06 am

Hi, this is Tim Gray, candidate for Palo Alto City Council. I am not accepting contributions and I am not seeking endorsements. Please check out the section of my web site addressing: "Why Is Financial Discipline The Most Urgent Need for Palo Alto?" Web Link

Also, please check out the discussion of infrastucture. Any candidate can be pro infrastucture, but that doesn't do anything. What is required is an urgent look at our spending if the city is ever going to regain the trust of the voters and have any bond measures approved. Web Link

When businesses are putting together Boards, they seek out a diversity of skills. I may not be everything, but I am the much-needed finance guy. You can vote for four. I am a solid number four. I am independent and will ask tough questions, and I am a cooperator. Most of my client are as large, if not larger than the City. The fact that I have been an independent consultant for ten years is a data point that would indicate that I create value by getting things done.

Best regards,

Tim Gray



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