Friday, July 1, 2011

Candidate Jeopardy

Whatcom Conservation Voters held its second annual Candidate Jeopardy event last night, and County Executive candidate David Stalheim – yes, Get Whatcom Planning’s own Outside Man – came from behind in a stunning last-minute victory. I hope that’s symbolic.

And it’s a good thing that I’m not superstitious. Guess who won Candidate Jeopardy last year? I did. Yup, won that battle, but not the war. So let’s not get complacent this year.

As campaign season rolls around again, I’ve been thinking about the many forms of jeopardy that face the candidates who want to Get Whatcom Planning. There are many categories. Here are just a couple.

FUNDRAISING FOR $800: The correct question is: what is the most important and most onerous job that every candidate faces? And $800 is the individual limit for campaign contributions in local races, by the way.

The sad reality is that even local politics are a mass retail event. As my sister, who’s in public relations, once put it, “the first law of advertising is that if you throw enough spaghetti against the wall, some of it will stick.”

Throwing spaghetti against the wall is expensive. Those big signs? $300 each. Mailers mean postage. Television, radio, all the ways that candidates get their names out to voters – it’s all money converted into paper, signboards, airwaves, and soundwaves.

My favorite columnist, Gail Collins of the New York Times, wrote about this part of politics last fall.* “A friend of mine who’s run for elective office,” she said, “used to tell me about the terrible long hours when your handlers have you locked in a room with a telephone, and you have to call people and say: ‘I’m so very interested in your plan for cutting the hands off shoplifters and if you’d like to attend my $500-a-plate dinner I’d be happy to discuss it with you in detail.’”

Local candidates, at least our local candidates, aren’t hosting $500 a plate dinners, much less talking about applying eye-for-an-eye justice in Whatcom County, but the emotional core is the same. It’s horrible to dun people for money, but it has to be done. So please be patient with our candidates, and understand that free speech during campaigns isn’t free, and give what you can. It might help to think of it as an investment in our future rather than merely a donation to an individual.

SLOGANS AND BUZZWORDS FOR $100: The winning question is: What’s the main form of communication during elections?

SLOGANS AND BUZZWORDS FOR $200: The winning question is: What seems to give the other side an advantage over our principled, nuanced candidates?

I’ll admit that I don’t think in slogans. I daresay that David Stalheim doesn’t think in buzzwords. Once the election is over, I don’t think that we want our County governed by buzzwords.

“Land grab.” “We the People.” “Get Whatcom Working.” People are busy, they’re barraged by information, and it’s easier to take in these two- or three-word slogans than to have to read, research, and think. When the world looks black-and-white, people are motivated to act.

This is a big fat pile of jeopardy waiting for our candidates, who run for office precisely because they understand that the world is a complicated place that rarely benefits from simple answers.

What do we do about it? Well, maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve thought and read and listened to other people analyze this problem over the past few years, and I am not convinced that we can compete on the simple slogan front. But I think that we can compete.

Here in Whatcom County, we are blessed by an intelligent and informed electorate. We compete by making sure that we reach every single person with a clear, but not simplistic, message: that we need leaders who work for all of us. We need leaders who understand the triple bottom line of economy, society, and environment. “Triple” is more complicated than “single,” but it’s worth it. (Thanks to Cathy Lehman, who made this point at Candidate Jeopardy last night. We have great candidates.)

To make sure our great candidates become great elected officials, we get a ground game. We support our candidates -- yes, with money if we can, with time spent doorbelling and phone-banking if we can't. We get everybody to vote, and we’ll win. Not just Candidate Jeopardy, but the election this fall.

*David Brooks and Gail Collins, “What a Voicemail Message Says About Washington,” New York Times, September 22, 2010.


  1. One of my favorite expressions from the 60's was a bumpersticker that read, "Tithe If You Love Jesus; Anybody Can Honk"...

    Write a Check for the Candidate of your choice. Today. Get your name on that list of contributors that the Auditor's Office posts online. Appreciation goes a long way--after it's expressed and the check has cleared.

    The fastest and most effective way of doing political business these days is to donate money. Last year, Nick Kaiser cut a check for $20,000 TO Kathy Kerschner's campaign. Does anyone think that Councilmember Kerschner will lend a truly dispassionate ear to legislative matters that involve Mr. Kaiser and his clients?

    Start writing those checks. Contribute what you can. And contact (5) of your friends and ask them to support your candidate. Spread the word.

    This County Council was bought by developers in the last election because a lot of dear hearts and gentle progressives did not get off their asses and vote. If voters reprise that kind of indolence this time around, you can kiss the County you have grown to love bye-bye.

    John Lesow
    Point Roberts

  2. Is not "Get Whatcom Planning" as much a "buzzword" as "Get Whatcom Working???"

  3. Well spotted, Jack. The similarity was, I believe, intentional.

  4. Jack, who cares? And what's with the "o"?

    "Get Whatcom Working" was a semi-catchy slogan coined by Theresa Sygotowitz for her fledgling County Council campaign before Sam Crawford and Tony Larson threw her under the bus and stole it.
    No honor among thieves when it comes to the County GOP.

    Tony Larson, Bill Knutzen and Kathy Kerschner have never created a job. Their function on Council is to deliver bromides and bloviation about subjects of which they know little.

    As an armchair planner, is it your position that planning in Whatcom County is now on firm ground?

    Is it necessary, under the new regime on Council, to Get Whatcom Planning? Or are you happy with Jack Swanson's leadership as titular Planning Director? Or the County's continued non-compliance with Washington law?

    Larson, Knutzen and Kerschner have done nothing to advance the interests of Whatcom County citizens over the past year, planning included.

    Regarding my earlier post, let's make a deal.

    I will write a check for $200 to Clayton Petree's mayoral campaign if you agree to donate $100 to David Stalheim's.

    Let's go.

    John Lesow

  5. "Well spotted, Jack. The similarity was, I believe, intentional."

    Let us all appreciate one of Jean's many gifts: Understatement.

  6. John,

    I had already written a response agreeing to your deal when I thought, "wonder what the law on this is?"

    Turns out if we did this it would be considered "earmarking" and, depending on the level of contribution either of us has made, it could open up David's campaign, or Clayton's campaign, to a PDC complaint by their opponents.

    Rats! Two to one is a good deal.

    Re: the three word phrases, I guess no one got the intended humor regarding the lack of action we've seen over the past four or five years as we've spent a billion or so hours "planning" and the action we might have if we actually did get Whatcom planning.

    I guess understatement trumps understatementer

    For John (that's an obscure reference to a movie title from some years ago and is also meant as a bit of humor).

  7. Jack,

    You worry too much.

    I already sent a check for $200 for Clayton's campaign.

    Send that hundred bucks along and let the chips fall where they may

    Personally, I would love to go to the mat with the PDC over this one--not to mention any weenie that would file a complaint; which is unlikely...