Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lessons About Local Elections (2013 Torrance School Board)

In 2013, I had worked with a small group called the "South Bay Education Council." We were all members of the Beach Cities Republican Club, based in Torrance, CA.

Part of our mission was to help conservatives win local elections, so that we could help shape the local civic culture to respect South Bay values.

We decided to work with one candidate, who was running for Torrance School Board: John Paul Tabakian, a college instructor and education entrepreneur. He did not mesh on every issue that I cared about.

He did not have to. He was the only Republican running for a seat on the Torrance School Board. He was interested in bringing public-private partnerships to the district. He had bold plans to save SCROC from closure because of funding cuts from the state.

Michael Wermers
Working with a little group which we called "The South Bay Education Council", we contacted all three current school board candidates/incumbents running for office: Michael Wermers, Mark Steffen, and Martha Deutsch.

The one candidate we were most interested in unseating, appointed member Martha Deutsch, did not return our calls. Finally, a campaign consultant contacted us. When he found out that we were members of a Republican club, he told us that his client was a Democrat. Would our club be able to endorse her, even if they could?

This consultant was wise. He was onto our plans, so to speak. When we told him that we had met with the other two school board candidates, he offered to talk with Deutsch again. The last time we heard from this consultant, Larry Fox, he reported that she would not meet with us.

Mark Steffen

Politically smart move. Besides, since she was a Democrat, and we were Republicans, it's not as if we would have agreed on anything. Another aspect of Deutsch's campaign: she offered nothing substantive in debates and forums. What would she do as member of the school board? What concerns did she have about revenue or Common Core? Nothing.

It seemed to many of us that Deutsch was the most vulnerable candidate, and that she could be removed.

So, the South Bay Ed Council wrote articles on Tabakian's behalf, and we contacted local leaders and teachers to support our candidate's election. He connected with trade unions, including the SEIU.

Throughout the next few months, I was receiving flyers from the SEIU, which endorsed Tabakian and Mark Steffen, a unique pairing since Steffen was another liberal Democrat.

The last week of the election, Tabakian prepared flyers and maps for us to go knocking on doors for a last push.

Then came Election Day.

John Paul Tabakian in one of his cable TV commercials

Tabakian lost. Of the four candidates running, including the other candidate whom we had endorsed, he finished fourth, and by a few hundred votes, too. The top vote-getter? Martha Deutsch.

That outcome left many of us confused, scratching our heads. How could she have done so well running on so little?

A year after that disappointing political outcome, this is what I have learned so far:

1. Martha Deutsch knew that she was the most vulnerable candidate. She was well-aware of the challenges that Tabakian posed to her election for office in her own right.

2. She took the campaign very seriously. She hired a consultant, refusing to rely on her own knowledge or network.

3. She invested a large sum of money, including glossy flyers. Even Tabakian told me that they cost $1,000 dollars. That's a lot of money.

4. She has strong ties with Torrance PTA groups, all of which supported her, particularly in South High. These interest groups have a direct interest in voting, because they work directly with school board members. They will show up and vote because they are thinking long-term with clear results.

Martha Deutsch
5. This issue of voter turnout cannot be ignored, either. Michael Wermers was working for 9,000 votes. 9,000 people did not even bother to vote in the 2013 school board election. Abysmal. The turnout for Torrance City Council was disappointing, too.

6. Tabakian's unforced errors:

     a. He was arrogant, and to many critics, still is arrogant. More interesting in promoting his ideas than serving the community, his ideas were academic and off-putting.

     b. He took union money. Support from liberal unions like SEIU sent a mixed message to Republican voters. Members of the Council felt concerned about this money, too, and ultimately it did not help him.

     c. He did not invest in lawn signs or flyers. I remember walking down Tabakian's street, and there was a home which had three lawn signs: Wermers, Steffen, and Deutsch. I also saw Martha Deutsch lawn signs all over South Torrance, particularly along Anza Ave. People are not going to vote for someone if they have no idea that they are running. Messaging is crucial, even something as basic as lawn sigs.

7. Tabakian worked with a dedicated group of Republicans and conservatives. He even received the endorsement of the local Torrance-Lomita Republican Assembly. He also claimed that the Beach Cities Republicans supported him,  although technically he was not supposed to use that club as an endorsement. Individuals volunteered their time to record advertisements for their candidate, too. Yet this group was not big enough nor influential enough to get him elected. Outreach has to reach out beyond a marginal set of dedicated partisans.

8. Voter apathy is strong, and candidates have to give voters a good reason to get up and fill out a ballot on their behalf. Either a strong emotional issue or an innovative reform will drive voters out to the polls. In Deutsch's case, she was popular with PTA moms, and they are willing to take the time to vote for their friends. No one can underestimate the importance of networking with politically connected and active local interest.

9. Incumbency. I  do not want to accept this fact, but there is no running from it. Incumbents are the closest things to divine right in our modern political culture. Most voters are intelligent people, but the time and energy required to educate oneself about  the candidates and their positions far outweighs the benefit or influence of one voter. Washington Post columnist George Will argued correctly that voter apathy is actually a rational behavior. There is little pay-off to be informed and engaged as a voter by oneself. Interest groups have more influence precisely because of this political reality.

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