Category Archives: Local elections

In Benicia: Targeting the Mayor and other incivilities

By Roger Straw, August 27, 2019

A call-out on trash politics in my home town

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

Oh, where to start?  I’ve needed to write about this for a loooong time.

Back in 2007, I met City Councilmember Elizabeth Patterson, who had announced her candidacy for Mayor.  She seemed bright, and I was looking for something to do in my recent retirement.  So I volunteered to help.

Elizabeth is now a three-term mayor in Benicia, due in large part to her own energetic campaigning and exemplary leadership and service on the Council.  But you can’t get to be Mayor three times all on your own.  The community has risen to support her, volunteered, rallied, chipped in financially, and organized to get out the vote.

And yet, consistently over all these years, one very loud voice has publicly targeted and trashed our Mayor in the local newspaper and online media.  The frequency of invective (definition: insulting, abusive, or highly critical language) on the Forum Page of our paper has caused any number of residents to unsubscribe.  And one can only guess how many residents have chosen NOT to run for public office lest they be publicly and repeatedly abused.

That mean-spirited voice has not been entirely alone.  The usual political spectrum of varying opinions, indeed the common dualism of right and left, has surfaced here.  The variety is welcome, and mostly positive, but we have seen a number of disrespectful voices as well, some less subtle than others.  Even some of the Mayor’s colleagues on Council have occasionally seemed to express distaste rather than simple opposing opinions of substance.

Why?  It’s not all about this particular Benicia mayor.

Governing.com recently published a fascinating article, “Targeting the Mayor” which relies on a new study published in the journal State and Local Government Review.  The study “finds that most mayors contend with verbal hostility or physical intimidation at rates above those of the general workforce.”  And mayors who are women are abused more often than others.

“In all, 79 percent of mayors reported at least one form of “psychological abuse,” which the survey defined to include harassment, being demeaned or receiving threats. Disrespectful comments or images on social media were by far the most frequent means of abuse. Nearly half of mayors similarly experienced harassment, while 13 percent reported threats of violence directed toward them.

“…While it’s not at all surprising that mayors encounter negativity, some face much more frequent offenses than others. The only factor that predicted both psychological abuse and physical violence was gender, with women more than twice as likely to experience such incidents as men….”

Mayoral abuse may be common, but it’s not right.  And gender bias may still motivate many, but it should have no place at City Hall or in our public discourse.

It is time that Benicians take on civility in our local politics as an issue to be faced openly and dealt with publicly and persistently.

The local newspaper must begin to assert it’s journalistic prerogative, taking responsibility to ban not only libelous content and trash talk, but also to specifically end the long-standing targeting of individuals.

Editorial responsibility is NOT censorship.  Mary Susan Gast wrote a beautiful explanation of this in her 2018 letter to the Benicia Herald editor:

As individuals and groups we are free to speak our beliefs and opinions to anyone who will listen; that’s freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is freedom from interference by the government in reporting.  Freedom of the press is not an author’s right to have his or her works published by other people.  As the journalist A.J. Liebling has said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”  Legal historian Lucas A. Powe offers further clarification:  “Freedom of the press gives the printer or publisher exclusive control over what the publisher chooses to publish, including the right to refuse to print anything for any reason. If the author cannot reach a voluntary agreement with a publisher to produce the author’s work, then the author must turn to self-publishing.”   [from The Fourth Estate and the Constitution:  Freedom of the Press in America, 1991]

And it’s not just the newspaper and social media.

In 2020, Benicia will enter into another round of electoral campaigns.  There was some trashy advertising by organized labor and Valero Benicia Refinery in our last election, repeatedly targeting one candidate.  Benicia’s Open Government Commission has proposed strengthening the public campaign finance ordinances to help guard against undisclosed outside corporate interests influencing our elections.

Stronger city ordinances will help, but I doubt they will be enough.  In an era dominated by a trash-talking President, how can we expect our neighbors — individuals or corporations — to exhibit civil behavior during a consequential election?

Well, we can.  And we must.  The candidates themselves can help.  Each candidate in next year’s contest should highlight the need for civil discourse and respectful exploration of differences of opinion.  Every candidate forum should begin with a moderator’s call to civil discourse and a shaming of trash politics.  Churches, civic organizations and local political groups could weigh in.  And yes, during campaign season, our local editors will need to be up to the challenge.

Let’s make Benicia a city with politics that make us proud!

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    KQED: Big Oil, Small Town: Valero’s Election Influence in Benicia’s Politics

    Repost from KQED NEWS Public Radio
    [Editor: This  is a GREAT audio report.  Only 12 minutes – well worth the time!  – R.S.]

    Big Oil, Small Town: Valero’s Election Influence in Benicia’s Politics

    12 min – Ted Goldberg & Devin Katayama, Jan 14, 2019
    The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

    Valero spent $200,000 in last year’s Benicia city council election to help elect two candidates who were less critical of the company than others. That’s created tension between the oil refiner and the city, leading people to question how much influence Valero should have in local politics. On Tuesday Benicia will discuss the possibility of new campaign finance laws that could limit corporate influence in its small town.

    For the audio interview, go to kqed.org/news/11717774/big-oil-small-town-valeros-election-influence-in-benicias-politics

    Guest: Ted Goldberg, KQED News Editor

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      Mayor’s thoughts for Council consideration on public campaign financing, etc.

      From an E-Alert by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

      Council meeting:  …dark money

      By Elizabeth Patterson, January 12, 2019

      The city council meeting agenda and packet with staff reports and recommendations are available on-line here.   Items of interest include:

      [excerpt…]  The second item of interest for consideration is Council Member Campbell’s two-step process request to consider updates to the city’s campaign ordinances.

      Staff is recommending the council provide direction on whether the Santa Clara model and any other proposed updates should be considered and whether updates should be discussed and reviewed by an ad hoc group or by the Open Government Commission prior to consideration by the Council.

      Other ideas that can be considered are:

      1. “Public Campaign Financing Won Big on Tuesday”:That was one of the headlines after last year’s elections that nationally had the highest turnout for 50 years.  Voters overwhelmingly passed Fair Elections matching funds systems in Denver, Colorado with 69% of the vote, in Baltimore, Maryland with 76% of the vote, and in New York City with 72%.  Great news in the fight to get politicians out of the Big Money fundraising game!

        To what extent can cities utilize this strategy?  For instance, some cities have adopted ordinances for candidates who pledge voluntary campaign expenditures limits but the candidate is targeted by an outside committee known as PACs spending nearly ten times what a candidate can spend.  So the city provides public funds to supplement the targeted candidate not equal to what is being spent by the PAC but helpful.

        Common Cause discusses public financing in this booklet.

      2. When we set up the Open Government Commission, the first batch of applicants had many great ideas – many of which have been adopted – but not including having a city website similar to the City of Livermore for guidance on how to be a “smart voter”.  While the League of Women Voters does this and other organization, it may make sense to have the resources available on a city webpage.
      3. Another concept is “participatory-budgeting” government which engages the public in decision making.  Why this idea is included in a discussion about campaigning is that a more engaged public is a more informed public.  At the end of the day, that is the goal so that voter decisions are based on information and not fear or “bad for Benicia” speak.  Some ideas to blend the public financing and “participatory” government could be explored further upon council direction.
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        How to make Benicia campaigns fairer and more transparent

        Please attend Benicia City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 15, 7pm at City Hall.  If you can’t make it, send your thoughts by email.
        Benicia’s CURRENT campaign ordinances can be viewed at codepublishing.com/CA/Benicia/. Chapters 1.36, 1.40 and 1.42 are the main election ordinances. In particular, see Chapter 1.40 “Disclosure of Contributions and Expenditures in Candidate and Ballot Measure Elections.”- R.S.]

        Possible improvements to Benicia’s campaign ordinance

        By Roger Straw, January 13, 2019

        The last Council election was dark.  Manipulated by corporate and labor interests using massive amounts of cash and smear campaign tactics, a single candidate was trashed, the voting public was deceived and a rational electoral outcome was smothered.

        All four candidates denounced the actions of the Valero / organized labor Political Action Committee (the PAC “Working Families for a Safe Benicia to elect Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge and to defeat Kari Birdseye”).

        In December, Benicia’s new City Council voted unanimously to review the City’s campaign ordinance.  The first discussion of possible changes will happen this Tuesday night, January 15, at 7pm at City Hall (see agenda and reports – PLEASE ATTEND!).

        Many in the community have raised questions and made suggestions on how the City can get creative to prevent this kind of thing in our 2020 election.  Here are a few ideas I’ve heard, with some of my own wording and additions:

        1. Benicia’s existing campaign ordinance requires candidates to conduct their campaigns honestly. This does not evidently apply to outside PAC’s.  Should it?  PACs can, and have, lied without consequence.  Should an impartial City commission or staff person be authorized to call out lies?
        2. Should the candidate forum hosted by the Open Government Commission, and designed to counter last minute attacks and hit pieces, be moved back from the Saturday before the election to a date at least two weeks before the election?  Or to a date shortly after actions “inconsistent with the Benicia Code of Fair Campaign Practices” are noted by the Commission?
        3. Should the City be required to post the Open Government forum on its website soon after the event?
        4. The existing ordinance references various kinds of expenditures by outside PAC’s and requires PAC’s to identify who is paying for them. But the ordinance does not reference ads placed on computer platforms and social media accounts like Facebook or Google. Should these be included in the update?
        5. In the last election, city staff posted on the city website the various income and expenditure reports filed by candidates and PACs.  But staff did not offer the public ongoing cumulative summaries and final or near-final totals.  When asked for clarifications, staff  was unable to offer the public assistance in interpreting some of these documents, suggesting concerned residents should approach the FPPC.  Should we require better Benicia  staff oversight and interpretation of Forms 460, 465, 496, 497, etc.?
        6. Polling – the last election featured extensive polling paid for by an local corporation (Valero).  Data from those calls was fed to the Anti-Birdseye PAC and used by their consultants in setting campaign strategies. When a poll is paid for or designed by outsiders engaging in political activity in an attempt to influence a city election, should the polling company and/or the entity paying for the poll be required to disclose who is paying for the poll? And should we require the poll questions to be disclosed to the City to determine whether the poll itself is a campaign advertisement rather than a legitimate poll?
        7. Endorsements – Many groups make endorsements in local elections. But in some cases, those endorsements are made by a small group of leaders of those organizations without ever asking for the consent of their members.  In 2018, we heard from many upset teachers and others that the Napa-Solano Central Labor Council made endorsements without consulting local association members.  When a membership based organization makes an endorsement, should they first be required to actually poll their membership and let the majority of their members vote on an endorsement?  And should those membership results be made available for public review?  And if not, should the endorsement made in a membership organizations’s name by another entity be required to disclose that fact on a flyer or other campaign material?
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