By Douglas Moran
Early Campaign Notes: City CouncilUploaded: Sep 18, 2014
I attended all the announced kick-off events for City Council candidates and these are my observations on what was surprising (and what may bear further watching) or might not otherwise become part of the wider public discourse. This is not intended to be a uniform treatment of all the candidates. Four of the candidates?Wayne Douglass, John Fredrich, Seelam Reddy and Mark Weiss?didn't have public events of their own and I haven't seen enough of them elsewhere to make substantial comments on them.
If you attended one of these events and were surprised by something, I invite, nay encourage, you to add a comment. I have been at campaigning long enough, and know enough of the people, that I may well have become desensitized and missed things that are surprising and interesting to newer participants.
Note: Comments on issues or personalities that have been well-discussed elsewhere (eg, articles, Town Square Forums) are off-topic for here.
Note: Most of my observations are related to watching and listening?I find questioning candidates to have limited utility. I haven't interviewed any of the candidates and don't intend to.
Disclosure/Note: I am extensively involved in Lydia Kou's campaign, and thus will exclude her from my discussion here (but not from your comments). This will also constrain my observations about the other candidates.
Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Karen Holman (i): No surprises. Their kick-off events and other public interactions were what one could easily predict from their websites, their literature, and news articles. They each focused on issues and priorities. One could view this as either reassuring (consistency) or disappointing (not making more of such an event).
Greg Scharff (i): His kick-off was very disciplined and tightly focused on experience.(foot#1) Scharff's biggest weakness coming into this campaign is that he is widely seen as a divider. As mayor, he was highly partisan in making appointments to committees, freezing out the minority on the Council. Similarly after the referendum on the Maybell project qualified for the ballot, Scharff hosted a "mediation" session, that was reportedly anything but. Organizers of the referendum who went in concerned, but hopeful for a resolution short of an election, came out angry and talking about feeling bullied. I expected Scharff to at least indirectly acknowledge the problem and somehow say that if reelected he would try to do better. Instead his featured advertisement is Joe Simitian saying "Greg Scharff has the leadership and experience to pull people together, find common ground and move Palo Alto forward, ?"
The other surprise in Scharff's kick-off speech was that in the section about his achievements: He talked about the city's economic recovery since he was elected in 2009. Although it is common for politicians to try to take credit for improvements that were part of the larger economy (the recovery from The Great Recession (Wikipedia)), it is also a huge red flag.
Nancy Shepherd (i): This was the most surprising kick-off. The keynote speaker focused almost entirely on Shepherd's activities in school district matters before she was elected to Council. In her own speech, Shepherd referenced as an achievement work she had done for Adolescent Counseling Services and dated it as being in 2000. For an incumbent, you listen hard for what they regard as their accomplishments, both as an indicator of how they see themselves and what they are likely to do. That was very, very sparse. The wrap-up speech by Assemblyman Rich Gordon I would classify as damning with faint praise, saying that she had "listened well" and "worked hard". Was this because Gordon was unprepared, or that was the best he could do? Similarly, the keynote speaker said that one of the top reasons for re-electing Shepherd was her ability to "put smart people in the same room."
At the Midtown Ice Cream Social (Sunday 9/14), Council candidates were invited to scoop ice cream for 30 minutes, allowing residents to learn their faces and talk to them after their shifts. Shortly after beginning her shift, Shepherd left the table to talk to someone. Fortunately a teenager who was staffing a nearby table (YCS?) noticed that the line was building up and jumped in to help (I didn't think to get her name). Candidate Mark Weiss similarly wandered away from his shift to talk to someone.
A. C. Johnston: He entered the race at the last-minute and acknowledged he knew little of the issues (news article). Consequently, there are two humongous questions about his candidacy: (1) Why did he decide to run, and (2) How does he plan to get up-to-speed. I first encountered him roughly a week later, on 8/23 at Cory Wolbach's kick-off event. His response to those questions were: (1) his neighbor Council member Liz Kniss encouraged him to run and that civic service was a tradition in his family, and (2) Liz Kniss was his source of information about city issues. At his kick-off on 9/12, I asked him again about his sources of information to see how he was broadening it. His answer was: Liz Kniss, Larry Klein (outgoing Council member), Peter Drekmeier (former Council member), Walt Hays (a leader of one faction of sustainability advocates), Steve Levy (pro-growth advocate), and Penny Ellson (Safe Routes to Schools). It then occurred to him "Maybe I should talk to you?" He had been seeing me and others like me for roughly 3 weeks at event after event, without even walking up to me (or the others I asked) for even mere pleasantries.
For someone getting up-to-speed, one of the things you look for is "Does he know what he doesn't know?" I asked Johnston a very broad question to allow him to pick something he was prepared to talk about: "What is your approach to housing?" His response was that he thought the Maybell project (2013 Measure D) was a good one. I asked him about a few of the major problems that the opponents had with the project, and each of his responses clearly demonstrated that he was not even aware of those concerns. I then asked him what he thought was good about the project?his response was that it was a large parcel of available land (nothing more than that). And when I asked why, if large parcels are land were so important for providing affordable housing, was it good policy to have been selling off more than half to that parcel for upzoned market-rate housing. No answer.
Although I will ask questions at these events when no one else is, I prefer to lurk as others talk with the candidate about their issues. Although Johnston listened politely to people, he rarely asked good questions of them, presumably because he didn't understand enough about what was being said. In several instances, I engaged people after they walked away from him and easily got a torrent of additional information.
I haven't seen him demonstrate the political skills to connect to people. In his kick-off speech, he said that he "got traffic" because he "drove Alma and Page Mill" and that he "got parking" because he went to California Avenue. He said that what he loved about Palo Alto was that he could easily walk to "downtown". Much of Palo Alto's political establishment lives in such a bubble that they seem unable to remember that much of Palo Alto isn't like their immediate neighborhood.
But let's get back to his reason for running. While it is commendable to do one's duty, to honor obligations, and to pay-it-back, that doesn't mean you will be a good Council member. I much prefer someone who is passionate about fixing problems. I can't tell if this applies to Johnston, but over the years, we have had too many Council members where it seemed what was more important to them was what went with being in office, rather than being able to accomplish something important.
Cory Wolbach: When Wolbach announced his candidacy, I was hopeful that his experience as a staffer in State Senator Jerry Hill's office would provide him with insight and access on the many problems imposed on Palo Alto by the State Legislature. I asked, but he said that that was not the area he was working in.
In his kick-off speech, restoring civility was a top priority. He mentioned how Measure D (Maybell project) had split the community and that he had friends who were on different sides who still weren't speaking. I asked what I thought would be a softball question: What had gone wrong? He had no explanation. I told him that I was familiar with the events from the earliest days, and gave him a thumbnail account of both sides, but it seemed new to him. While I could understand him not following up on the day of his kick-off (exhaustion), he didn't ask when we met at subsequent events. I eventually initiated a discussion, but he didn't seem to have done anything to learned the circumstances, which is essential to understanding the dynamics, which in turn is essential to understand how not to have a repeat.
As with A. C. Johnston, I haven't heard him engage in the discussion of an issue of his choice that got to the level of sophistication that I would expect of a candidate at this stage in the campaign.
Although the candidates themselves aren't running as slates (to the best of my knowledge), if you look at their supporters, positions and approaches, there are two very clear groupings. For one, the obvious label is "The Establishment", and it is being used by their opponents and even some of them. The label Residentialists was used by the newspapers and others to describe the other group during the early stages of the campaign, and is descriptive. However, it may not last because the Establishment candidates are trying to coopt that term. I have heard a few members of the Establishment refer to the other group as "The Insurgents", but I haven't heard any of the candidates in that group use that label. I kind of like the term because it is both descriptive of those candidates and evocative of the failings of the Establishment that led to those candidacies.
If you were to show me a photo of a significant fraction of the audience at a kick-off event, I am confident that I could tell you whether it was for an Establishment or Residentialist/Insurgent candidate. The differences are that striking. I was at the back of the room at Johnston's kick-off and someone walked in and said "Whoa. This is the Establishment."
The Establishment candidates are Johnston, Scharff (i) and Shepherd (i). The Residentialist/Insurgent candidates are DuBois, Filseth, Holman (i) and Kou. I am unsure about Wolbach. As a staffer for a politician, Wolbach has strong social and professional ties to the Establishment. And much of his support seems to be coming from the Young Democrats organization (again Establishment). Although he says that he doesn't want to be part of either group, I haven't seen him do anything yet that would give me any confidence that he wouldn't vote with the Establishment.
APPENDIX: Campaign Websites
?A. C. Johnston
?Mark Weiss (part of his personal blogging site)
Unaware of website for Wayne Douglass.
---- Footnotes ----
1. This level of discipline and focus is worthy of note because one so rarely encounters it in Palo Alto politics. You have some candidates who put no thought into their introductions, other than wanting prominent names. Other candidates try to coordinate their speakers, only to be thwarted when the speaker takes the microphone, for example, when the speech approved by the candidate is 2 minutes, but the speaker then takes 10-15 minutes talking about what he wants to talk about. Campaigns tend to be tight-lipped about what happened, but sometimes you know it is the latter just by looking at the campaign manager (who is staring daggers at the runaway speaker). A common comment among organizers is that trying to get these celebrity speakers on-message and on-time is like "trying to herd feral kittens".
Aside: This is problem for politicians at all levels. For example, the 2012 National Republican Convention where one saw Clint Eastwood engage in a delusional rant with an empty chair and Chris Christie given a keynote address that instead of supporting the Mitt Romney (the nominee) was broadly characterized as him promoting himself for 2016.
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.