Candidate kickoffs: First weekend | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Candidate kickoffs: First weekend

Uploaded: Aug 30, 2016

There were five candidate kickoff events this weekend and I attended four--the one I missed was Greg Tanaka's because it conflicted with two of the others. The events for Council candidates Arthur Keller and Lydia Kou and School Board candidate Todd Collins were all well run. The logistics were handled well (indicative of a good campaign committee), and the speeches accomplished what was needed and expected. These three candidates each gave interesting speeches about the issues and their approaches, and got positive reactions from their audiences.
Disclosure: I am working on the campaigns of Keller and Kou, and have worked with each of them in civic activities for over a decade. I provided Todd Collins with campaign advice and documents that I have provided to others over the years, but don't feel that that influences my commenting--my investment in his candidacy is similar to that of other interested voters.
Aside: Collins' audience response was predominantly vigorous nodding; Kou's was clapping; Keller's a mix. Just an observation.
Note: The typical, and expected, candidate kickoff speech is heavily intertwined with what they have, or will have, on their web pages and in other campaign literature. Consequently, I am not going to replicate that here. After all the candidates have a chance to get up-to-speed, I may provide some compare-and-contrast.

Their introductory speakers were also good. Getting someone to sing your praises, and do so effectively, is harder than you might think. The 2012 Republican National Convention offered two examples of what can go wrong: Clint Eastwood's rant at an empty chair, and Chris Christy whose keynote speech was supposed to promote Romney but instead was usurped to promote his own run for the nomination in 2016 (similar to Ted Cruz at the 2016 convention). If a candidate doesn't have at least one prominent supporter who is enough of a team player to give an introduction that sets up the candidate's speech, should that candidate be taken seriously? Or if that candidate doesn't know his supporters well enough to know who would do a good job?

Aside: Barbara Klausner (former School Board member) was the introductory speaker for Todd Collins and gave the best introductory speech I have heard in a long time: strong, interesting content, well-coordinated with the speech that followed, and excellent delivery. (text).

In School Board candidate Collins' speech, what resonated most with me came early: That we should prioritize priorities. This is my phrasing, not his, and I like it because there are several appropriate reading. I am mentioning it here because I don't see it on his web pages and because it got the least reaction from the audience. He talked about being at a School Board meeting that was addressing the priorities for the upcoming (one) year. There were 24 major goals and 89 measures to be taken, and the Board was considering adding more. He emphasized that when you prioritize so much, no one knows what the priorities are.(foot#1) What I found revealing was that the reaction of Staff had registered with him--he reported that they seemed dismayed by the impossible-ness of it all. Aside: During my professional career, I have been in too many meetings where those making the decisions ignored the input of those who had to implement them, often to the point of obliviousness.

He talked not only about having a manageable set of priorities, but the right priorities. His first priority is "One year's academic growth for every child, every year", but while his website lists it, it doesn't say that this isn't currently among the District's goals.

The rest of the speech reflected what I had read on his website.

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Liz Kniss' kickoff was very different. If I had to pick a descriptive word, it would have been "complacent" or "sloppy". Or maybe because she has been around so long and was speaking to long-time supporters, she didn't think that a tightly organized kickoff was necessary. Her primary introductory speaker was US Representative Anna Eshoo, who focused on the 100th anniversary of the National Parks system and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution (women's suffrage).

Kniss' speech largely avoiding talking about the issues facing the city, or what she would do. I was briefly hopeful when she choose a theme of "What's past is prologue" (from Shakespeare's play "The Tempest"). But what she wound up talking about was growing up on a chicken farm on Cape Cod watching her father's involvement in local politics. I was expecting something more recent.

Although kickoff speeches are given to audiences that are predominantly friendly, one expects the speeches to have been reviewed carefully enough to avoid statements that can be easily misconstrued, either by wags and opponents. There were far to many of these moments in Kniss' speech and the supporting speeches. For example, Kniss talked about her experience with "sitting in meetings". This brought to mind the Republican attacks on Hillary Clinton's trumpeting of how many miles she had traveled as Secretary of State: "Flying is an activity, not an accomplishment."

If an incumbent encouraged supporters to put campaign signs along badly congested streets so that drivers would have plenty of time to look at them, what would be your interpretation and inferences?

I am not trying to be snarky, but reacting as someone who has helped with many candidate kickoff speeches over the years. My experience is that the supposed near-final draft circulates among the key campaign staff for roughly a week as they look for such problems in conjunction with sharpening what the candidate wants to convey. I think is very noteworthy that this apparently didn't happen here.

Another example of what I regard as evidence of a failure to adequately think through what was to be said: In asking for donations, Kniss complained about how expensive and difficult it was going to be to campaign during a Presidential election year. In a proper critique of the draft, one of her advisors should have reminded her that she was the primary advocate for moving Council elections from odd years to even years.(foot#2)

A supporting speaker (Mayor Pat Burt?) brought up the reduction in Council size from 9 to 7 that will happen in 2018. He argued that this could result in that Council being too inexperienced without Kniss present.(foot#3) This was an audience where many had supported the reduction, and more had been ambivalent, ignoring warnings about this very problem.(foot#4) A proper critique would have found that this might easily be turned around, arguing that Kniss isn't a complete enough Council member to warrant being on the Council after the reduction. This arises from a common observation is that she has been very passive on the current Council--when I talk to people about Council deliberations, her name is seldom mentioned (ditto Marc Berman). Expecting a naked claim of "experience" to be enough for voters is a perennial failing of politicians--witness the Presidential primaries where such candidates lost because they couldn't/wouldn't explain how that translated into what they would do (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Martin O'Malley, ...).

So why did Kniss feel free to eschew the expectations of a typical kickoff? The assessment from many of those active in Palo Alto politics is that Kniss is going to cruise to re-election based upon big-name endorsements and name recognition and past elections, and thus they speculate that her campaign can afford to be different from those of the other candidates.(foot#5)

For my part, I have basic expectations of a candidate independent of their positions on issues before I even consider giving them my vote. Even for a well known candidate, I view the campaign as an indication of the candidates commitment and interest in the issues that will be important in the upcoming years, and that campaigning on the issues allows the candidate to hear from a broader section of the electorate. I would encourage you to look beyond a candidate's position on the issues, and look for evidence of their interest and ability to execute on what they say. In the business world, considerations of execution are often the deciding factor in whether to pursue an idea.

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Relevant impressions from those who attended these five kickoff events are especially welcome as comments (trying to maintain focus).

Candidate websites and kickoff events are listed in my earlier blog "Candidate Kickoff Events: Public, not just for supporters" which I update as information becomes available/changes.

----Footnotes----
1. I would phrase this "When you prioritize everything, you prioritize nothing", influenced by my exposure to the admonition of Frederick the Great of Prussia "He who defends everything defends nothing."

2. One purported benefit of moving the Council election year was that it would reduce what the County billed the City for the balloting (overhead costs being spread over more offices and propositions). However, this ignored the increased costs to candidates, and the consequences of who would run. Another postulated benefit was that with more people voting in the major elections, there would be more participation in the local elections (real involvement, not just marking off some down-ballot choices).
However, many pointed out that it eliminated a "gap year" between Kniss being termed-out of the County Board of Supervisors and when she could run for City Council.
Discussion of that decision is off-topic here.

3. FYI: The terms of five Council members will expire in 2018 and two of those seats will be eliminated. Two incumbents are term-limited: Karen Holman, Greg Scharff. So there could be three incumbents--Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Cory Wolbach--running for those three seats.

4. I opposed the reduction in blogs here:
- "Reducing Council Size? Against", 2014-09-25.
- "Subverting open, fair and honest debate (Measure D)", 2014-10-26.

5. In 2012, the vote results for the 4 seats were:
- Liz Kniss: 17445
- Greg Schmid (i): 13637
- Pat Burt (i): 13201
- Marc Berman: 13057
- Tim Gray: 7668
- Mark Weiss: 5749


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An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.


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