By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Even in a place like Davis, it’s difficult to defeat incumbents. But to illustrate that point, the Vanguard has been around since 2006. In that time, there were only two incumbents—both in the same year—that were defeated running for reelection: Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza in 2012.
If you go further back, there was a third incumbent this century that lost—Michael Harrington in 2004. As we noted in previous columns, each of those defeats have interesting stories but, then again, so does Dan Carson.
Carson, who emerged from a crowded field in 2018 to win alongside Gloria Partida, is now facing a real fight for his seat. There are reasons to believe he might not survive this, but there are also reasons why he might prevail.
Carson, as most of you reading this are aware of, made a series of mistakes this past spring on the DiSC campaign. We can debate on the wisdom of his filing the challenge to the ballot language—personally, I think the language was problematic. But the optics of a sitting councilmember doing that struck many as wrong. Filing for attorney fees, however, seemed an unmitigated disaster.
This was all the more magnified by the fact that two of the most vocal people for Measure H—Carson and Gloria Partida—were going to be on the ballot in the fall.
There were angry voices in June about Carson, but would a strong challenger emerge? Would Carson actually face a tough campaign?
What first caught my attention was the photo of Bapu Vaitla with Robb Davis, Lucas Frerichs, and Josh Chapman. Hey, Frerichs and Chapman are current colleagues of Carson and both of them are largely not the type to make waves. Both of them have duo-endorsements, meaning they are endorsing Bapu and Dan Carson—but even going that far was a strong message to Carson, given that these are single-member districts.
This week, Bob Schneider, a long time and well-respected Davis resident, submitted a letter to the Vanguard supporting Vaitla. I was not particularly surprised.
What did get my attention was the second part of Bob’s letter: “We are greatly disappointed and strongly oppose Dan Carson. Please DO NOT support him. We feel that he demonstrated strong disregard for democratic principles and acted unethically when he worked for the DISC developer and then sued the Measure H public opposition using developer funds.”
So, one is tempted to believe that Dan Carson is in trouble?
But there is a catch: there is a third candidate in the race—Kelsey Fortune. As it turns out, while many people are angry at Dan Carson, the anti-Carson vote, if you will, is split. The slow growth contingent is backing Fortune, the only candidate in the race who actually opposed Measure H.
For that crew, Bapu is not “progressive” or “slow growth” enough.
As one letter demonstrated, “Dan Carson and Bapu Vaitla supported the Davis Innovation Sustainability Campus, Measure H.” Further, Vaitla has been criticized for saying “he would consider overturning the City’s phase-out of glyphosate, which is the primary ingredient in Roundup, an herbicide made by Monsanto and now Bayer.”
As one person pointed out to me this week, this race looks a lot like the 2020 race in District 2 where Will Arnold faced Dillan Horton and Colin Walsh.
In that race, Arnold failed to crack 50 percent of the vote. But because he had two opponents, he ended up winning easily. Horton was the progressive, moderate-growth guy whereas Walsh was the progressive, slow-growth guy. Horton received 28.6 percent of the vote and Walsh 21.8 percent of the vote, so neither came close to Arnold’s 49.6 percent.
Analyzing those numbers, you can clearly see a path for Carson’s survival. Vaitla and Fortune simply split the anti-Carson vote and Carson prevails like Will Arnold did.
But there is another way to look at this. Will Arnold has deep deep roots in this community. His family is an institution. For the most part, Arnold is well liked in the community. He certainly had no missteps on the scale of Dan Carson and, if he could be held under 50 percent with a solid track record, Dan Carson figures to be in that much more hot water.
The problem that we face right now is that those who support Kelsey Fortune, seem to taking on both Dan Carson and Bapu Vaitla.
For example, a recent letter notes that both Carson and Vaitla supported DiSC. The letter writer argues, “Davis citizens disapproved this project 64% to 36%, which political scientists define as a landside defeat. Carson was the honorary chair of the Measure H campaign which had lawn signs that implausibly read ‘combat climate change’ – for a project that predicted 12,000 daily vehicle trips. What do these facts tell us? Carson and Vaitla are out of touch with the Davis electorate.”
It’s hard to defeat an incumbent based on that kind of split. It’s one thing if you have a primary like in the Board of Supervisors, where two people can take on the incumbent, hold the incumbent under 50 percent, and face a runoff in November. Here, you have to outright defeat the incumbent.
This problem was anticipated. The Vanguard learned earlier of a Zoom meeting where supporters of Vaitla and Fortune met, but no agreement was reached.
To put this problem into math terms—if you have a two-person race, all you have to do is hold the incumbent under 50 percent. If you have a three-person race, you likely have to hold them under 30 percent to win. It’s not impossible, but it is far more difficult.