ENCINITAS — Both Encinitas mayoral candidates, Mayor Catherine Blakespear and challenger Julie Thunder, spoke out against toxicity this election cycle and pledged to run fair and honest campaigns during a Sept. 18 episode of The Coast News’ podcast, North County Beat.
This article takes a deeper look into both interviews, offering voters another opportunity to hear each politician’s view on election toxicity and hosting hard conversations.
As the first two political candidates in North County to join, both Blakespear and Thunder signed the pledge having personally experienced verbal and written abuse at the hands of impassioned constituents in previous months.
Speaking in support of the pledge, Mayor Catherine Blakespear described it as a way for both candidates and supporters to step back and recognize the role played by online forums and conspiracy theories.
“We all know change starts with awareness,” Blakespear said. “When you shine a spotlight on something [needing change] you can say, ‘Hey, maybe this could be done differently,’ instead of taking it for granted as if this is how it has to be.”
Thunder said the pledge sets a much-needed standard this election season.
“I hope that not just myself and my opponent adopt this but other candidates across North County will take a hard look at it and consider following these guidelines,” Thunder said.
A political newcomer, Thunder is campaigning in an election for her first time, was shocked at the level of vitriol in Encinitas, from online harassment to stolen political signs.
“It really surprises me,” Thunder said. “I do not condone that from my supporters and I don’t think my opponent does either. There is a level of… I don’t want to say hatred, but deep unhappiness in Encinitas that people are willing to do something that’s criminal.”
Alternatively, Blakespear has become familiar with public intimidation and harassment since her election in 2016.
“I became mayor the same night Trump was elected President and I do believe there was a tone set from the top,” Blakespear said. “He has normalized behavior that would not have been seen as acceptable before.”
Blakespear continued, saying in her experience, civility is key to overcoming the toxic environment.
“When we show each other civility, we’re demonstrating respect and showing value for an individual person and their opinion,” Blakespear said. “You’re saying, ‘I hear you, I see you, I want to know what you think,’ and laying the groundwork for being able to hold a conversation.
“For the most part, the job of Mayor is trying to solve problems. There is a percentage of people who are happy about this or that but for the most part, you’re dealing and debating in areas where people are unhappy.”
In her work with city staff and councilmembers, Blakespear has sought to “create an environment where if we disagree or have a different vision or approach, we work through our problems respectfully, recognizing the core value of each individual opinion.”
Similarly, Thunder roots her own style of conflict resolution in simply listening, citing her own personality and past experiences with her family, coworkers, and community.
If faced with a disagreeing constituent, Thunder said, “Number one, I would listen to what they’re saying and try to identify what their concerns are and how it’s related to whatever decision we’re discussing.
“I believe as people understand what’s going on and they see what’s happening… they see the process and if that process is reasonable at least a reasonable number of people will support it.”
When disagreements turn toxic…
While disagreements and debate come with the territory of holding political office, outright harassment and abuse ideally do not.
Blakespear’s policy is not to engage with those who take disagreements to an inappropriate or threatening level.
“You don’t give it currency, you don’t forward it, you don’t traffic it in,” Blakespear said. “You express your displeasure about it. That’s what we need to do.”
Blakespear also noted that as the mayor, she doesn’t have the time.
“Each day you’re trying to find consensus with other elected officials and professional staffs at these big agencies,” Blakespear said. “To think that you’re going to jump into that online forum and spend your emotional energy in that place, for me it’s just not possible.”
Thunder agreed, noting she regularly avoiding social media for her own mental health.
“I don’t have the time and frankly, it’s not a healthy place to put your mind because it’s so divisive,” Thunder said. “I don’t want to live in that world and I don’t want to put more time into that than I have to.”
Endangering the future of local politics as we know it…
Despite their differences in policy and governing practices, both women agree the increased level of animosity and toxic discourse is harming Encinitas’ civic engagement as a whole.
Thunder found the timing of the podcast discussing such abusive behaviors, the pledge, and the election important.
“These behaviors, the very subject of your podcast right now — toxicity in public service — is exactly what keeps good people from running for public office and that is really disheartening to me,” Thunder said. “I’m not a politician I didn’t plan on doing this but here I am. I felt the calling, if you will, and to be treated like this is shocking.”
Blakespear agreed people are increasingly turning away from initiating hard conversations or considering a run for public office out of fear for their own safety and sanity.
“I think the amount of negativity is unquestionably a deterrent,” Blakespear said. “I have this conversation often because it’s important to have good elected officials in office. Why do we have fewer minorities and women in elected office? There’s an environment of personal attacks, threats, and violence. All of that is a deterrent.”
While the candidates disagree on issues ranging from housing to environmental conservation and city planning, they do agree on this- North County could use more respectful dialogue, for the benefit of the present and future.
The Clean Campaign pledge is available to all North County political candidates and to date, also includes signatures from Oceanside’s mayoral race as well as Del Mar, Carlsbad, and Encinitas City Council races.