By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Last week, I argued in my column that Measure J campaigns are inevitably going to be expensive. I stand by that argument largely because, by definition, a Measure J campaign can’t go on the cheap.
So you are going to have consultant costs, you can’t just print out cheap one-pagers on your home computer, and you have to pay for your canvassers. The reality is that is going to add up quickly.
In a response, Roberta Millstein argued that “nothing forced the Yes on Measure H campaign, led by ‘Honorary Chair’ Councilmember Dan Carson, to outspend the No on Measure H campaign by more than 14-1.”
But that’s exactly the problem. In a way, a Measure J campaign is not running against the opponents, they are attempting to convince voters to vote for a project. That’s hard to do. It’s only happened twice in 22 years.
A few years ago I saw some polling that showed at the start of one of the Measure J campaigns, there was already nearly 40 percent of the voters who opposed the project. That means in order to win, somehow the campaign has to convince about 30 to 40 percent of persuadable voters to support the project, while the opposition only needs to move about 10 percent into opposition.
That said, I don’t disagree that the campaign was mismanaged.
Millstein argues that the developers should have “talked to voters to find out what, in their eyes, would make for a project that was better for Davis and modified the project accordingly.”
Instead, she argued, “they polled Davisites to find out what would ‘sell’ to voters and rushed a virtually unchanged project to voters (just cut in half) only a year and a half later.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to criticize a failed strategy. But there was a certain logic to it. The project narrowly failed. People were most concerned with traffic and size. Shrinking the size of the project while being able to run a field campaign felt like the best way to move forward—particularly if they didn’t want to do a whole new EIR.
So why did the measure go down overwhelmingly this time when a larger project in 2020 narrowly failed? The most obvious answer was the lawsuit.
Millstein writes, “That includes over $200,000 on a heavy-handed free-speech-squelching developer-funded lawsuit, which, bizarrely, Greenwald says is not a campaign expenditure issue.”
In fact, I never said that. At the time, I didn’t have a particular problem with filing the suit, which I think has largely been mischaracterized. It was disastrous to have Dan Carson do it and probably the icing on the cake was then to seek attorney fees. It just looked awful.
For all intents and purposes, they lost the campaign right there and never recovered.
But I think the campaign failed to recover in part because it failed to capture the imagination of the voters. Why do we need an innovation center? I think there is a great and compelling story there—but one that was largely untold.
That’s not a campaign finance issue, that’s a messaging issue.
My argument was somewhat mischaracterized by Millstein. I wrote that the No campaign could afford to operate on the cheap, use “volunteer precinct walkers and canvassers” and “do their own in-house mailers or drop pieces, they can print off their home computer and copy it at Copyland or FedEx office and get away with it.”
She writes, “let me get this straight. Not having money is a huge campaign advantage. Got it.”
That’s not what I was saying. What I was saying is that the No campaign was able to be effective running a cheap grassroots campaign, whereas if the Yes side tried that, they would just look “cheap.”
Millstein adds that “nothing is stopping developer-led campaigns from having unpaid volunteers (these need not be students, as Greenwald suggests) who are willing to dedicate their time and skills to crafting a message, walking precincts, talking with folks at the Farmers Market, spreading the word on social media, etc. Nothing.”
Perhaps true. But you can’t run the type of ground campaign that the Yes on H campaign was running only using volunteers. To do it right, you have to pay people. That’s just the nature of how these things work.
Certainly they could have saved money along the edges and certainly they didn’t run a good campaign, but I would argue that they were always going to run an expensive campaign and, for the most part, we will not see a Measure J campaign run for less than hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What sank it was a bad decision and poor messaging.