By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – I have seen some recent letters lamenting dirty politics and the recent negative attacks. In the past week I have had a few people ask me what can be done. To which I can only respond: I hear you.
Unfortunately, politics is a nasty business. While American politics does not usually see physical contact like we have seen in other countries that wasn’t always the case (for instance in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and repeatedly struck abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts over the head with a cane nearly killing him). Most of our blood sport is metaphorical rather than literal.
And while I happen to believe – as I unfortunately predicted a few months ago – that district elections would make things worse, we should remember that what we are seeing in the last week is not actually that new.
In the last week, I had a conversation with a few non-involved councilmembers. Prior to district election, the set up was such that we had in effect, multimember districts (which were in fact at large). That meant instead of winner takes all, you have the possibility of the top 2 or even the top 3 (in alternating cycles) getting elected.
That didn’t eliminate negative attacks, but it did mean that you didn’t have to knock off the incumbent directly to win. You could simply be among the top few. Now, in order to win, you have to finish first and, if there is an incumbent, you have to knock off an incumbent.
Even in a place like Davis, as I have pointed out, it’s not that easy to defeat incumbents. In the last 20 years, only three incumbents have lost reelection.
And you could argue that they were defeated by negative campaigns.
In 2004, Michael Harrington was defeated running for reelection. And while you could list a host of factors, the direct cause was the Gidaro letter.
In 2012, Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza went down to defeat. In that case, there again were probably multiple reasons. Greenwald had been on the council three terms, Souza was running for his third term.
In 2010, Greenwald and then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson had gotten into a heated confrontation on the dais that led to Asmundson taking ill and Sue Greenwald continuing to act belligerently even afterwards. The confrontation was captured by the Vanguard on YouTube and received regional coverage.
An anonymous mailing reminded voters of the episode when Greenwald ran for reelection in 2012.
The two incidents illustrate, I think, two important points. First, politics in Davis has always been nasty and contentious. We can go back to the battle over Wildhorse and the incident of WOA. We can look at the various confrontations in the council chambers over the years. Davis certainly did not need additional help to have its politics become more combative.
But there is a second lesson—and it’s a lesson people probably don’t want to hear and certainly don’t want to learn. Negative campaigning is effective. At least it can be. The Gidaro letter, the anonymous mailer against Sue Greenwald in large part worked. Even if people were outraged. Even if there was backlash. The incumbents went down.
But we also know that negative campaigning doesn’t always work. For example, in that same 2012 election, there was another attempted hit piece.
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.
Why do some ads work and some ads not? It depends on the ad. In the case of Sue Greenwald, I believe the attack worked in part because a segment of the community was already negatively inclined toward Greenwald and the ad was a reminder to many voters that they were tired of the contentious era of the Davis City Council which seemingly lasted from 2004 to 2010. The two holdovers from that time period were Greenwald and Souza, and it is probably not coincidental that the ad brought down both, even if Souza was not really a target.
Why didn’t it work against Maguire? The charges were not true, easily refuted, but also they targeted someone who wasn’t particularly vulnerable and, in campaign for judge, the behavior was just unseemly.
As I have pointed out a few times in recent years, the Measure J process has also introduced a more contentious element into Davis politics. By politicizing land use—an issue already rife with hot emotion—one exacerbates that problem.
Once again structural issues play a role. How do you defeat a land use project? You demonize it. So when DISC was on the ballot in 2020 and then 2022, it was back-to-back election cycles with a project that was defeated, which helped to boil political passions especially on the No on DISC side of the equation.
It doesn’t help matters that two of the leading proponents of the project—and thus the face of the campaign for the opposition—are on the ballot now.
So you take the always contentious Davis political landscape, you add some district elections which make for the winner take all dynamic, and you add in some land use controversies and you have a recipe for some negative campaigning.
How do we fix it? I’m not sure we can. Measure J is not going anywhere. District elections are likely not going anywhere. Politics are not going to become less contentious.
The only thing I can think of is perhaps choice voting—although, that certainly hasn’t made places like San Francisco any less fiery. Once we get past these elections, if I were on council I would look toward building some sort of vision that the community can back—but I think even that would be difficult at this time.
That leads me to conclude: politics is dirty. Deal with it. (BTW, dealing with it is not a synonym for accepting it. Just saying).