Sunday Commentary: Will District Elections Mean More Campaign Attacks?

Is this a preview of coming attractions?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Will District Elections Mean More Campaign Attacks?”

  1. Ron Glick

    Perhaps it would be better to help voters distinguish between the candidates by asking them about the positions they hold on issues that are likely to come before the City Council instead of rehashing eighteen years of  nastiness in Davis politics. With the election less than 100 days away the process is set. Droning on about choice voting doesn’t help the voters  decide the choice before them. If there are attacks its fair to cover them but otherwise this article is useless to the voters.

    1. Matt Williams

      Ron, I personally feel David’s article is a timely one.  The two lawsuits that Councilmember Carson personally filed against Davis citizens makes this a very different election from all the others in recent memory.  One can argue that the first of the lawsuits was understandable, but the second lawsuit for lawyers costs was over the top, especially since the developer, rather than Dan Carson himself, was paying the lawyers.  So unlike elections in the past, Carson’s actions have opened the door for both integrity questions and autocracy versus democracy questions.


    2. Bill Marshall

      I somewhat disagree with you Ron G… I would be less concerned about their “views” on specific topics per se, but more about how they intend to serve their district, and the community at large…

      Last thing I think the community needs is “it’s all about my vision”… we’ve seen altogether too much of that at State and Federal levels…

      It should be more about ‘service’ (as opposed to ‘servicing’), listening to the constituents, rather than personal views/agendas… 60% for the former, 40% for the latter would be a good formula…


  2. Bill Marshall

    Although ‘choice voting’ was brought up as a sidebar to the main thrust of the article, there would be no value to District 4 folk in 2022, and of questionable value in District 1 this year…

    It sorta’ made some sense when we were “@ large” and had large fields… would be interesting of whether we would have been coerced for the “district” approach, had we had choice voting previously… but “that ship has sailed”, so mainly an academic/rhetorical question… no practical value in the answer…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Are you saying that with choice voting, “districts” will disappear?

        I think not!  That was my main point… it would not surprise me at all, particularly if an incumbent is not stepping down, it will be not be larger than a 3 candidate field, with districts…

  3. Keith Olson

    I feel for District 1 it comes down to you either want to keep Carson or you want to vote him out.

    For those that want to vote Carson out they had better decide on just one of his two opponents they want to back.  If they split the ‘anyone but Carson’ vote there’s a good chance that Carson will win.



      1. Bill Marshall

        If we went to Charter City status, enabled choice voting, does anyone know what additional costs to the City that would incur for an election?  Seems like there would be a cost, @ County Elections, over and above the current costs…

        I am not opposed to choice voting per se [and actually like to see the choice “None of the Above”], but the costs/implications of becoming a Charter City, and specifically the costs of ‘choice voting’, should be a real part of the community discussion if the proposal(s) are made… they may be de minimus…

        I grew up in a Charter City on the SF Peninsula… lived in three General Law cities, since… except technically (and San Mateo’s tax on real estate transactions), never noticed a difference.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Yes, Keith O… charter city status is a two-edged sword… like much in life…

          Gives more flexibility as to voting, taxes, etc., DEPENDING HOW THE CHARTER IS WRITTEN…

          But folk need to have wide open eyes, in seeing how the charter is written… it is not ‘carte blanche’, but the mechanism can either include or exclude taxing authorities (by CC vote or electorate), and it can include or exclude ‘choice voting’… see the bolded text in this post… it depends… on how it is written, and the voters who approve it.

          Amendments to the ‘charter’ have to be approved by the electorate… just ask Kevin Johnson, when he wanted Sac’s charter amended to “strong mayor”…

          If Davis pursues ‘charter city status’, you’ll have plenty of time to help craft/object to the contents of the charter… and then vote on it separately… kinda’ like the development review process, and the JeRkeD process… different, but analogous…


        2. Bill Marshall

          If Davis pursues ‘charter city status’, you’ll have plenty of time to help craft/object to the contents of the charter… and then vote on it separately… kinda’ like the development review process, and the JeRkeD process… different, but analogous…

          As will I…


    1. Bill Marshall

      As to the topic, ‘campaign attack’, am just wondering when some one comes up with the “remember your ABC’s” slogan [Anybody But Carson]…

      Personally, easy to say as I don’t live in the district, I have no problems with him, nor his challengers… I’d be cool with any outcome… it’s the district’s choice…

      But, two observations:  Ms Fortune (might be an inadvertent pun in there) moved from a district where she lost, big time, to a district where she might have a real shot 2 yrs later [particularly with some of the ‘controversy’]… intentional?  Have no clue (but turned out to be a ‘good move’, except a 3rd person entered the race)…

      I don’t ‘move’ a lot, but know folk who do; bringing up choice voting in the article sniffs of favoring the ABC’s, in an indirect manner… unintentional?  No clue as to ‘motivation’… but if there were, could probably guess what it is… perhaps getting rid of the ‘white male’ (more diversity)?

      Will be fun to watch ‘on the sidelines’, as I no longer have a “say” (vote) outside my district…


  4. Todd Edelman

    The letter is a bit ironic—bemoaning the negativity while itself going negative […] engaged in any negative name-calling like another one of her opponents.

    So stating that one of your opponents is being negative… is being negative? Mentioning the lawsuit is negative?


      1. Ron Oertel

        How about claiming that a candidate (whom you obviously don’t support) is being negative by pointing out another candidate’s negative actions (initiates legal action regarding a ballot statement on behalf of a developer)? Actually, did she even specifically say this?

        Is that being negative, in regard to the candidate whom you don’t support?

        In summary, all of the following are negative?

        Incumbent initials legal action against opponents (negative).

        Challenger points this out (negative).

        You point out that the challenger (whom you don’t support) is pointing this out (negative). In other words, the “negativity circle” has boomeranged right back to you, as usual.


        1. Ron Oertel

          Though let’s not forget that you initially viewed an incumbent taking legal action against his own constituents on behalf of a developer as a positive.

          And you continued to do so (even after the incumbent lost in court, and was ordered to pay the defendants for their legal defense), right up until the time that Bapu Vaitla entered the race.

          In fact, you still maintain that the incumbent didn’t “lose” in the first place. (Now, that part is neither “positive” nor “negative”. Instead, it’s a denial of reality.)

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