By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Unintended consequences. When Davis was forced to move from at-large to district elections for the 2020 City Council campaign, it turns out there are—in addition to predictable consequences—some unintended consequences as well.
One of the biggest is that the elections moved from a top two or top three winner system to winner takes all, single member districts. That means, in order to win, you have to best your opponent and in many cases that means knocking off an incumbent. Generally speaking, the public is going to reelect incumbents unless they did something wrong.
That will inevitably invite more in the way of direct personal attacks. Whereas before, candidates tended to take a me-too approach, they would present their views and attempt to get second or third votes in order to coddle together a winning coalition. Now that ploy doesn’t work because there are no longer second or third votes.
We are in the early stages of the 2022 council campaign, but it already figures that this might be pretty negative.
Here is just one example, a letter for Kelsey Fortune running in District 1 attempts to argue that she “has projected a purely positive, professional message” but the letter quickly goes negative, arguing that is “something neither of her opponents have demonstrated.”
The letter adds that “she is not embroiled in any lawsuits with the District 1 voters like one of her opponents nor is Kelsey Fortune engaged in any negative name-calling like another one of her opponents.”
They conclude: “I think district one voters will agree when we I say I am tired of negative junk and garbage which ought to not be in any of our back and front yards. It is time for a fresh start.”
The letter is a bit ironic—bemoaning the negativity while itself going negative—and, while fairly benign as attacks go, that’s actually the problem. It demonstrates where a lot of these messages are going to go—not only highlighting the strengths of the favored candidate, but bemoaning the shortcomings of the opponent(s).
As longtime observers in Davis know, Davis really didn’t need much help in going more negative. It has a fairly long history, but one thing it had avoided were direct political attacks.
Most of the attacks previously were from third parties.
For instance, there was the Gidaro letter which helped take down incumbent Michael Harrington in 2004 and elevated Don Saylor and Stephen Souza to the city council.
In 2006, Julie Saylor (wife of then-councilmember Don Saylor who was not running that year) wrote a letter to the editor accusing candidate Lamar Heystek of misogyny from one of his ironic columns in the Cal Aggie. That attack was ultimately not successful.
In 2012, an anonymous mailer which turned out to be from the construction unions reminded voters of Sue Greenwald’s infamous meltdown with Ruth Asmundson. That along with missteps by her husband, who was caught taking opponents’ lawn signs, helped to end her three terms on council.
At the same time, we are also reminded that firing off attack ads can backfire. In 2012, Deputy DA Clinton Parish was challenging Judge Dan Maguire. A campaign mailer authorized by Parish’s campaign accused Maguire of being a “bagman” for Governor Schwarzenegger. The ad badly backfired, leading not only to Parish’s handy defeat but the end of his career as a Yolo County prosecutor.
With incumbents Dan Carson and Gloria Partida facing challenges, it figures that the path to victory is going to be to remind the voters of why certain segments do not like those incumbents.
Historically it has been difficult to knock off incumbents. It is perhaps not surprising that the only two elections in the last 20 years that have seen incumbents defeated were the elections with memorable attacks—2004 and 2012.
The letter here is a reminder, however, that this figures to be a very contentious election cycle. It is obvious that the issue of the lawsuit is going to shadow Dan Carson throughout this campaign. Somehow we figure that opponents of Gloria Partida will have to raise her support—twice for DISC in 2020 and 2022, not to mention perhaps some other less anticipated issues.
That’s the price of single-member districts. In the end, there can only be one.
Of course, district elections are likely here to stay for better or, for the most part, for worse. There is at least one possible fix here—choice voting. By going the choice voting route, it means once again that voters are not stuck with merely one choice, winner takes all. Instead, it is akin to an instant run off, where you rank your choices and retabulate the results until one side gets over 50 percent.
To get to choice voting, Davis would have to become a charter city, something that it had been reluctant to do in the one time where the issue came to the voters. But if this campaign cycle turns particularly nasty, perhaps there will be a willingness on the part of the voters to explore alternatives. Stay tuned.