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By Douglas Moran

A reprehensible political ad

Uploaded: Nov 2, 2014

This is not so much about a particular set of lies at the core of one political ad, but more about Palo Alto's political environment. When very prominent people believe that they can get away with these sort of lies, it is indicative of the other behaviors that have created the current contentious environment. I find it troubling that so much of the political establishment seems untroubled by this ad.

Before you dismiss political ads as inherently deceptive, recognize that California has a voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices. This code is not to protect the politicians, but the electoral process. It is meant to serve the voters--to help them make informed choices. The Code commits candidates to open-ness and sincerity (pt 1), and to "immediately and publicly repudiate" "methods and tactics that I condemn" (pt 6). This code became an issue earlier in the campaign (article).

Although I would prefer to have fact-checking on the ads done by reporters, that hasn't happened. So here goes. The ad in question is one by a new group, "Palo Altans for Good Government" (PAGG), whose sole activity seems to have been this ad, and whose membership is dominated by prominent members of the campaign teams of the candidates being endorsed (see footnote). It has run since Monday 10/27 in another local (hardcopy) newspaper, and ran in the Palo Alto Weekly issue of 10/31 in the bottom half of page 19 (PDF). Advice: you may want to put this ad in a separate web browser tab or window for easy reference below.

---The basic lie----
The ad attacks candidates Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Lydia Kou and possibly Karen Holman, although not by name but by the description "the Slate sponsored by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ)" (this is a pair of lesser lies that we will get to soon). The ad claims that those candidates "advocates for no growth." This is a false claim dating back to the beginning of the campaign and has been repeatedly refuted by statements by the candidates (in their campaign materials, in response to questions...). Those candidates have talked about managing and balancing growth, for example in relation to available infrastructure. At this stage, such a claim is a knowing falsehood and its use in a political ad is clearly intended to deceive. Those are the criteria for declaring a statement to be a lie.

Aside: If you are troubled by my calling out lies, please see my earlier blog entry In defense of incivility, especially the section "Civility run amok: Lies are bad ... so don't you dare point them out"

---The secondary lie----
The ad claims that these candidates are sponsored by PASZ, which is false. "Sponsored" is a very different word from "endorsed", and PAGG has both lawyers and politicians who well know the difference. Also, PASZ didn't endorse these candidates until surprisingly late into the campaign. Yes, three of the four endorsees are members of PASZ, but what is surprising about that?(foot#1) Searching through the financial reports, I find no monetary donations from PASZ to the endorsed candidates, and only minor non-monetary contributions typically associated with endorsements.(foot#2)

In case you haven't spotted the hypocrisy, PAGG has engaged in exactly the same behavior as PASZ: They have endorsed candidates and they have paid to promote those candidates (through the newspaper ads).

This lie seems intended to set up the claim in the PAGG ad that the candidates they endorse are "independent thinkers" and "NOT a Slate".

----The lesser secondary lie----
The four candidates endorsed by PASZ are described as a slate. This is an invention of newspaper reporters--they do such things to simplify their stories. The sponsors of this ad have more than enough experience with the press to be reflexively skeptical of anything they read.

In an election, a slate is a group of candidates that run on a common platform. It is much, much more than candidates who have similar positions and/or who may endorse each other. Long before the campaigns began (January 18), I blogged "Candidate Slates for City Council: Time to reconsider?" stepping through the various levels of cooperation and coordination of campaigns, both for candidates in the same race (Council) and related races (+School Board). This was basic politics.

Throughout this campaign, the candidates in the purported slate have repeatedly stated that they are not a slate. I can personally state, both authoritatively and unequivocally, that they are not a slate. As an adviser to one of the current candidates, I was a participant in the discussions with other campaigns about how they would interact. The option of a slate was immediately rejected (without any discussion) as were all the options that involved stronger versions of cooperation. Those candidates wanted to be able to differentiate themselves based upon their own strengths and priorities (although I suspect that much of that wasn't apparent to the typical voter).
Note: Comments stating that some cooperation is proof of a slate will be deleted as mendacious.

So ask why is PAGG lying by labeling the group of candidates they oppose as being a slate, while explicitly claiming that the group of candidates they endorse is "NOT a Slate", while putting forth what looks to be a three-point platform for them (characteristic of a slate)?

----The "moratorium" lie----
Early in the year (January?), PASZ called for a temporary moratorium on major development projects because City Hall seemed to inadequately track and respond to cumulative impacts (traffic, parking...). The City had a similar moratorium about a decade ago when the incoming Planning Director discovered that serious problems identified 10 years before that (in the mid-1990s) had been allowed to spiral out of control. PAGG removes two crucial pieces of context from that call for a moratorium: it was a temporary pause (for catch-up), and it applied to development projects and not projects such as the public safety building (PAGG's claim).

----The false invited inferences----
There are many invited inferences in this ad that are false, but if you haven't already dismissed the ad as lacking any credibility, further explanation is probably pointless.

---Aside: "there is no 'establishment'"----
The ad makes this claim. Details about membership in "The Establishment" are off-topic here. However, this term has been, and will continue to be, used and thus deserves a brief explanation. The classic definitions center on a dominant group whose membership is determined far more by social connections than by merit. This can be seen in the current Council election by some of the candidates and in the pattern of endorsements.(foot#3)

----Question for candidates Johnston, Scharff, Shepherd, Wolbach----
You are the candidates endorsed by PAGG. Many of the members of PAGG are not just generic supporters, but prominent members of your campaign teams.(foot#4) I have not seen a public repudiation of these supporters for their involvement in this ad. If this doesn't represents "methods and tactics" of which you approve, the Code calls for you to have done this.

----Question for City Council----
Two of your members--Klein and Price--are sponsors of this ad. City politics have become so contentious because so many residents have come to see City Hall as not to be trusted and as not treating them with respect. You say you want to remedy this situation. Does their conduct not rise to the level of deserving some form of official rebuke?

----Question for residents----
Is this something that you are going to dismiss as "politics as usual", or say "We're not going to take this anymore!" Or something in between?

My most vivid memory of the 2013 Measure D campaign (Maybell) came from a neighbor who had immigrated here from mainland China. She said that she came to America believing that it had an honest government, but had come to see Palo Alto's government as just as corrupt as back there. Very troubling. And I hope it isn't true.

A repeated theme in this blog (now over a year old) has been the importance of open, fair and honest decision-making. I have walked away, after a fight, from professional and civic organizations despite considerable investment in them because they tolerated, even rewarded, significant patterns of dishonesty.

On the other hand, I recognize that there is a non-trivial segment of our population that regards various forms of dishonesty--deception, false accusations...--as simply weapons in a modern form of the medieval Trial-by-Combat (just look at online forums). I hope that this segment is simply highly visible, and not becoming dominant.

One of the interesting contradictions of Silicon Valley is that our prominent companies are known for their insatiable appetite for data, but we still have a political class that resists letting facts get in the way of what they want to believe. Many of the current political battles in Palo Alto could be diagnosed as a "culture war" generated by this contradiction (earlier take on this: Analytics vs. Aspirationals).

Since I expect that most of you have already voted (by mail), I am encouraging commenters to suggest what could be done to repudiate the likes of Palo Altans for Good Government. To say "No. We are Palo Altans for better government."

---- Footnotes ----

1. It is hardly unusual or unexpected for organizations to favor their members when it is time for endorsements. For example, in this Council race, the Democratic Party of Santa Clara County refused to endorse one candidate, a Democrat, because he had endorsed another candidate who, although he is a Democrat, had voted in at least one Republican primary.

2. Non-monetary PASZ contribution: Identified as campaign literature. I don't know the details. However, it is common for endorsing organizations to reprint candidates' literature, often with customizations for their membership or audience. This has to be reported as a non-monetary contribution to the campaign.
If you want to look at the details of the contributions and expenditures for yourself, the campaign filings can be found by going directly to the NetFile Portal for Palo Alto--do not go to the City Clerk's Elections page because this link is hard to spot, and the links you are likely to select are blind alleys. Once there, you can download the raw data in a spreadsheet (.xlsx) which is useful if you are searching for specific types of donations or donors. The spreadsheet is very wide and you will need to delete/hide columns to make it vaguely readable. The button to download this spreadsheet is at the top of the NetFile Portal page. Note: The spreadsheet does not include data from candidates who submit hardcopy forms (Eric Filseth is the only one doing so in this contest).
To get data on individual candidates, go to the bottom of the NetFile Portal page and expand the "11/04/2014 General Election" to "Candidates" and then "Council Member". The Form 460 show the donations and expenditures for each reporting periods (and to-date totals). Form 497 (if any) document donations during the late phase of the campaign that require immediate reporting because of their size (threshold $1000).

3. The Establishment: As an example, consider candidate A. C. Johnston: He was recruited to run by his neighbor Liz Kniss (Council member, former mayor, former County Supervisor...) with no previous experience or interest in local issues. But look at his endorsements. Candidate Cory Wolbach is a lesser example. He too had little/no previous experience with local issues but is well-connected to the Democratic Party establishment.

4. Listed members of PAGG and some of their public/official roles in campaigns of candidates endorsed by PAGG (above the level of being endorsers listed on mailers and brochures):
Ray Bacchetti: highlighted endorser for Scharff.
Betsy Bechtel (Foothill-De Anza College Trustee): highlighted endorser for Johnston, Honorary Co-chair for Wolbach.
Note: The traditional role of an Honorary Co-chair is to raise money and secure prominent endorsements for the candidate, and to provide limited advice (supplementing the campaign manager).
Sid Espinosa (former Council member): highlighted endorser for Johnston, Scharff and Shepherd.
Walt Hays: Honorary Co-chair, kick-off event cosponsor and highlighted endorser for Johnston; highlighted endorser for Shepherd.
John Kelley: introductory speaker at kick-off event and highlighted endorser for Johnston.
Larry Klein (Council member): Honorary Co-chair for Johnston; introductory speaker at kick-off event for Scharff.
John Melton (Palo Alto Utilities Advisory Commission):
Gail Price (Council member):
Bill Reller (developer):
Steve Reller (developer):
Joe and Diane Rolfe:
Susan Rosenberg:
Alice Smith (Democratic Party activist/fund-raiser):
Roger Smith:
Bruce Swenson (Foothill-De Anza College Board President): highlighted endorser for Johnston.
Jackie Wheeler: host of kick-off events for both Johnston and Scharff; highlighted endorser for Johnston.
Lanie Wheeler (former Council member): highlighted endorser for Scharff; Honorary co-chair for Shepherd.

APPENDIX: Campaign Websites (alphabetically)
- Tom DuBois
- Eric Filseth
- John Fredrich
- Karen Holman
- A. C. Johnston
- Lydia Kou
- Seelam Reddy
- Greg Scharff
- Nancy Shepherd
- Cory Wolbach
- Mark Weiss (part of his general blogging site)

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.