By Andrew Matuszeski
With six years on the dais, Mayor Blakespear has taken yes/no votes in full public view on an estimated 800+ agenda items. With a track record like that, no one can complain that they do not know where she stands.
Recently, signs for the Mayor’s challenger sprang up with the tag line “I’m on your side.” But with the job of Mayor literally defined by binary yes/no votes, and some citizens on each side of most issues, how can a political candidate be on everyone’s side? I decided to find out.
Over three weeks, I published three very basic local policy questions for Julie Thunder on a local voter Facebook page. Each post acknowledged that I have no subpoena powers and that the candidate wasn’t obligated to respond at all.
The only lever available to encourage a response was the inclusion of a running tally showing which questions had been answered, and which had been ignored.
The questions I posted were simple, straightforward, and yes/no—just like the votes a Mayor must make at City Council meetings. And all were issues where Mayor Blakespear’s position is a matter of public record.
The first question asked about Thunder’s support for the completed Rail Trail; the second asked if Thunder would have voted yes or no on additional resources the city council recently approved for our Sheriffs to educate and enforce the county’s COVID-19 mask requirement, and the third asked how Thunder would have voted on the city’s program to offer safe overnight parking in a private lot for homeless living in cars.
Sounds reasonable, right? So what happened?
I was called an ass, a troll, a harasser, and worse. I ended up answering way more questions from the Thunder campaign about myself than the candidate did on policy positions.
Thunder’s supporters eventually become so outraged and upset at the asking of basic local policy questions, that the moderator of the group made it clear that posting policy questions to a candidate was unwelcome in a group called “Encinitas Votes.”
I later learned the moderator has donated close to the maximum allowable contribution to the Thunder campaign–a fact not disclosed to members of the group.
Lessons learned, and thoughts about the upcoming election:
I learned that the challenger for mayor and her supporters really REALLY do not want to answer binary policy questions from residents in public view. I also came to understand that Julie Thunder has a very energized, organized, and aggressive core of online supporters who operate with full time, all caps, zeal.
If you have not met them, and you would like to, just post a simple thought on a local issue on Facebook or Nextdoor–they will find you. But this energetic base of virtual activists is not a majority here in Encinitas. Or at least, Julie Thunder probably does not think so.
How can we know this?
A quick review of online groups dominated by the challenger’s core supporters shows that they are strongly aligned in opposition to the three issues I asked about: the rail trail, the county health order requiring masks, and the creation of a safe parking lot for the homeless.
If the challenger thought that the policies of her core supporters represented a majority view in Encinitas, then it should be very easy for her to answer all three questions with a clear and simple “no,” in line with her core supporters.
I believe candidate Thunder struggled and resisted answering basic policy questions because she understands that one answer aligns with her minority base, and the other answer aligns with Mayor Blakespear and most Encinitas voters.
This problem is not limited to the three issues above. On issue after issue–from safe storage of firearms ordinance (Blakespear voted yes), to climate mitigation efforts (Blakespear voted yes), to investing in improvements along the Leucadia 101 corridor (Blakespear voted yes), to concrete armoring of our natural beach bluffs (Thunder supports SB1090’s concrete seawalls)–on so many issues, core supporters of Julie Thunder generally line up one way, while most Encinitas voters generally come down on the other side.
In order to win the election, candidate Thunder must convince people with heartfelt disagreements on both sides of important local policy matters to think she’s “on their side.”
Ultimately, she needs many of us to vote against our own policy preferences because we are confused about what the candidate really stands for. Being on everyone’s side sounds nice, but ultimately, it’s about confusion and misdirection.
Is it a winning strategy? That is up to you.
It depends on whether a campaign that claims the noble high ground of transparency and community engagement can get away with actively avoiding simple, binary, basic policy questions from the public.
It depends on whether aggressive online tactics can make the rest of us tired, confused, willing to disengage, to give up, or to vote against what we believe just to make the noise stop.