By Douglas Moran
Pseudo-Primary for CA Senate District 13: some thoughtsUploaded: Feb 21, 2020
A big frustration with local candidates is that they resist differentiating themselves from their opponents. When pressed, the typical answer is so weak as to be unhelpful and to seem like the candidate wasn't prepared to be asked for this. I will spare you the various rationalizations.
This is again the case. I watched this paper's interviews with the candidates for this Senate seat, and the candidate forum it sponsored.(foot#1) I decided I couldn't make an appropriate compare-and-contrast presentation because I didn't hear enough of interest to me that isn't already widely available. Although I may cite some of the candidates' comments, I am not going to present arguments for or against them. Rather I will present some underlying ideas that may help you think differently about the candidates.
Why do I call this a pseudo-primary?
Because it could effectively be the General Election for this and similar offices, that is, the official General Election in November will likely only be confirming these results. The six Democrats are likely to split up the votes between them to a degree that the lone Republican candidate -- Glew -- has a good chance of finishing first or second in this Top-2 Primary. This will put him into the General Election against the top-finishing Democrat who will then win by a large margin. This has been a common pattern in past elections. In ^Glew's interview @0:29^, he doesn't have answers on how he hopes to change this.
Aside: The intent of the Top-2 primary system was that in districts dominated by a single party -- most of California -- to end structurally locking in the above situation, thereby allowing the possibility of the top 2 candidates of that dominant party facing off.
Aside: My view of the Republican Party in this area -- and much of California -- is that it is dedicated to increasing irrelevance, and should be treated as a fringe party: little more than a way to register a protest vote.(foot#2)
----What kind of representative?----
Many people think of the members of the California Legislature as focused on passing laws (and the budget) and vote based upon what laws the candidate promises to push. They forget that, if elected, the candidate will be only one of 120 voices (80 in the Assembly, 40 in the Senate) and a few of those voices are dominant. Back during a budget "crisis" when the Governor was a Republican (Schwarzenegger) and the Legislator was controlled by Democrats, our Assemblymember declined to cut his vacation short and rush back to Sacramento. In justifying this, he committed a gaffe (definition: "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say" - journalist Michael Kingsley): That there was no point to returning until the "Big Five" (The Governor and the Majority and Minority Leaders of both Houses) had finished negotiations and his (Majority) Leader was ready to tell him how to vote.
My attitude is to ignore the big promises that a candidate makes but rather to focus on whether he can meaningfully contribute to and shape legislation by attention to details and tradeoffs. If a candidate's advocacy is too far off the generic one for his party, he will be irrelevant. If it is close to the party's generic position, more generic advocacy isn't going to make a difference. I consider whether a candidate can listen to, understand and factor in competing perspectives, whether he has patience for details and analysis, ...
Party loyalty to a degree is important for the typical legislator to have impact, but beyond that results in the legislator representing the party's establishment, not his constituents.
Aside: I was a teenager in the 1960s when the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan faction was taking control of the Republican Party. My area continued to be represented by moderate Republicans -- then called "Rockefeller Republicans", now RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). However, Republican Party discipline was such that this didn't matter: A common assessment was that these legislators would vote with the Party when their vote would make a difference, and vote for their values or constituents when it didn't. Back then, the Democrats lamented the lack of similar discipline at the national level ("I'm not a member of any organized political party -- I'm a Democrat" - humorist Will Rogers ). Being sensitized to this, I see examples all the time. We the voters are largely responsible for this: I know too many people who vote according to Party endorsements. If the contest for the Party endorsement can become the true primary, and even the de facto General Election, how can you blame candidates for regarding the party establishment as the true electors, not the people who show up to vote?
Aside: The 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus once again brought to mind "Those who cast votes decide nothing. Those who count votes decide everything" (Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator).
Constituent Services: Constituent services include helping individuals, groups and even local governments within the district navigate the State bureaucracy and pushing to resolve problems. It includes pushing the bureaucracy or legislature to adapt its rule-making to accommodate unusual individual or local situations. And to facilitate many other interactions between constituents and the government.
Outgoing (termed-out) State Senator Jerry Hill gets high marks for this. He was not only reactive to requests, but proactive. For example, at public meetings on important controversial topics, it wasn't unusual for a staff member to be present to listen and report back. I can't say the same for our Assemblymember Marc Berman.
Legislators have District Offices where constituent services is a dominant activity. Even at their offices in Sacramento, constituent services can be a very large activity, both for their staff and the legislator. However, some legislators may redefine "constituent" to include a range of out-of-district contributors.
Aside: Members of the US House of Representatives are referred to as "Representatives" which captures more of their role and responsibilities than the terms for members of the California Legislature: "legislator", "Senator", "Assemblymember".
I don't know of good advice for judging how a candidate will regard constituent services: There is a huge difference between being in the local community and being off in Sacramento. Occasionally a candidate is so deeply enmeshed in a policy agenda or entwined in the party establishment that I am skeptical that he will give adequate attention to constituent services.
----How the candidate thinks----
Since a successful candidate is unlikely to achieve much, if any, of his campaign promises (above), I listen to his discussion of policy issues for the quality of his thinking: knowledge, depth of analysis, appreciation of complexity, ...
Below are some examples illustrating some of my subcategories.
Willingness to honestly and respectfully represent the whole district and others
Various politicians and activists claim that winning an election, even by the slimmest of margins, entitles them to impose their agendas on everyone. Failure to accommodate the minority can rip democracies apart. The US is a republic first and a democracy second, that is, the ^rule of law^ protects (various types of) minorities from ^Tyranny of the Majority (Masses)^.(foot#3)
While it is implausible for a candidate to represent all the views and wishes of a non-trivial population, I expect the candidates to have an understanding of differing positions and to be able to respectfully engage in meaningful discussions with opponents. Failure to do so is potentially disqualifying -- potentially because there may be offsetting disqualifying aspects for the other candidates. Examples of this at the national level are 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's ^47% comment^ and 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment. I discussed local trends in my 2016-09-22 blog "^The 'You're despicable' style of politics^".
Ongoing local example: In the discussions of SB50 (California Senate Bill 50, "...Affordable Housing..."), advocates -- legislators, media, lobbying groups -- routinely denounce Palo Alto with terms such as "wealthy enclave" -- def: a distinct territorial, cultural, or social unit enclosed within or as if within foreign territory -- and "bucolic" -- def: pastoral; relating to shepherds or herdsmen; relating to or typical of rural life. That's right, they cast Palo Alto as a pasture for multi-millionaire cows and sheep living in isolation from the surrounding communities (walls and fences?). And oh-so-many other disparaging characterizations.
Where to generic residents rank relative to special interests?
SB50 also has provided multiple examples of this variant of the above. For example, when asked about increasing the overloading of already overtaxed infrastructure -- most commonly about traffic congestion -- I too often hear/read a response that people will just have to adapt. Or, more politely, that the speaker has confidence that people will find a way to adapt. Or some such.
With more and more people calling for new developments of office space needing to be matched by new housing for those jobs, there is a similar response: It is too expensive for employers or the developers of commercial space to build that housing, mostly because of land costs. Wait! Why wouldn't it be just as expensive, or more so, for another developer to build that housing? While these advocates don't admit to it, SB50 and similar bills have the public subsidize the developments in ways not immediately apparent to the general public. First, those subsidies should not direct transfers of funds to the developers, but rather reductions of their expenses, such as not providing parking and not paying a fair share on public facilities. And with no formal connection between the housing developer and the commercial developer, there is indirectly a subsidy to the commercial developer because he doesn't have the unsubsidized costs of building housing. And some of this indirect subsidy passes to the occupant of that office space in the form of lower rent -- if the commercial developer thought he would have been able to recoup his costs for included housing, why wouldn't he have built that housing??
Attitude on how to accomplish change
The traditional notion, and occasional practice, of law-making was to build widespread support for a policy and then codify it. However, there is a breed of candidate that openly believes that they know best and that the public would agree with them in only the public wasn't so ignorant, dumb, shortsighted, bigoted, ... Most know to tone this down a bit during election campaigns. However, one of basic signs of this attitude is advocating moving decision-making far enough from the public that they have little influence. Sometimes the transfer is to a bureaucracy. Other times, the transfer is geographic, from the local government to the state or federal government. Even more effective is transferring power to a remote bureaucracy.
Over-reliance on experts, the bureaucracy, ...
Too many elected officials take the easy way out of deferring to "the experts" even when their constituents demonstrate that those experts got facts and calculations wrong or are pursuing an agenda at odds with their constituents.
Among the current State Senate candidates, I have heard many citations of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA, pronounced Ree-na) that is produced by our (unelected) regional government. All I have heard is support, or at least acceptance, of those numbers. This despite the years of controversies over the process and the allocations produced.
Magical thinking, ignoring history, ...
Candidates who purport to be serious about an issue/problem, but don't show they haven't thought beyond the slogan level are themselves serious problems: Worse than doing nothing is impeding progress with non-starter ideas or pushing through counter-productive programs.
It has become routine for candidates to propose near-term goals and, when pressed for details, claim that it would be met by some yet-to-be-determined "innovations". This should set off alarm bells. Most innovations take decades to go from discovery to mass production. Even though the pace of innovations in computer software can be relatively rapid, this still takes many years.(foot#4)
Example: I have been paying attention to regional transportation issues for over two decades, and one constant has been proclamations of the need to coordinate, if not integrate, the tens of local transit authorities. A second constant has been that little has happened. A third has been that the advocates can't/won't explain why. Not offering an explanation suggests that the candidate doesn't understand the basics of the dynamics and politics of agencies and other bureaucracies. Such a person is unqualified to hold a position of power in government (or other large organizations).
Example: Advocacy for California being "carbon-free" in 10 or 15 years. Such a person has never thought about such a vast undertaking, much less even observed the management of even a medium-sized project. I haven't seen an estimate of how much additional electric power would be required for shifting to it from current fossil-fuel usage -- including homes shifting to all-electric heating -- plus new needs, such as overnight charging of many more electric vehicles.
Most people will immediately think of the costs, resources and time to replace existing uses of carbon-based fuel, but do not recognize the huge problem of supplying electricity when the "clean" sources -- solar, wind -- can't meet demand. How do you store solar power for use at night and other times (wind is indirect solar power)? Batteries are one way. What are the carbon and environmental costs of mining and fabrication for those batteries? Kinetic storage is another way. For example, clean power is used to pump water from a reservoir to a higher reservoir where it is returned to the lower reservoir through electricity-generating turbines as needed. This scheme has many energy-inefficient components, including the pumps, turbines, evaporation from the higher reservoir and transmission lines.
Tunnel vision; disregarding negative consequences
Being too much an advocate for a particular policy or special interest group can cause a legislator to push laws that do more harm than good.
Example: Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) was pushed by labor unions wanting to have Uber and Lyft drivers become (unionizable) employees (aside: from what I have read, those companies were being exploitative). However, a wide range of other gig workers were also included with so little consideration for the reality of their situations that I would label it gross negligence, both by AB5's sponsors and the whole legislature for enabling an environment that fails to catch such travesties. Publications are severing relations with freelance writers in California. Translators are being advised to become LLCs (Limited Liability Corporation). Similarly for individual truckers who service multiple businesses on an as-needed basis. And so on.(foot#5) As publicity of the problems created by AB5 has grown, Sacramento is now scrambling to do what should have been done before the law was enacted.
But what if you are in a group that lacks the high profile or clout to get the law's sponsors to broaden their consideration beyond providing high ROI (return-on-investment) for their big supporters?
Example: Wind turbines have an unsolved problem of killing significant numbers of birds, and many of the prime locations for wind turbines are also on the migrating paths for birds which are taking advantage of the wind. Many advocates of wind power dismiss the problems of bird kills under the rationale that climate change is disrupting the environment, ignoring that these birds are a crucial part of that environment: Many species migrate between the Arctic to the tropics. Proposed slogan: "We had to destroy the environment in order to save it (from climate change)."
History lesson: ^Eliminate Sparrows Campaign (1958-1960) of the Four Pests Campaign of China's Great Leap Forward^. Because grain intended for human consumption was some of the seed eaten by sparrows and similar birds, Mao decreed a nation-wide campaign of killing these birds, a campaign that drove some species to the brink of extinction. This was a major factor in the ^Great Chinese Famine^ which killed tens of millions. They had ignored that those birds also ate insects which, uncontrolled, then devastated crops.
Ability to detect basic logical inconsistencies in their advocacy
Example: Many of the advocates of forcing cities to build more housing propose that the State withhold transportation grants from the cities that fail to reach their "target". So, there are cities that resist more housing because it would add more trips to their already congested streets and withholding funding to improve traffic is seen as an effective weapon against those cities?
Recognition that insoluble problems don't have simple solutions.
Example: A common belief among advocates of just building lots of housing will solve the housing affordability problem. They dismiss the obvious impact of that housing on infrastructure, schools, city services, ... But what most of us miss/forget, is the impact of housing on housing. I have been told that "San Francisco" has calculated that three new Market-Rate housing units create the need for one additional Below-Market-Rate (BMR) unit. A typical requirement for housing developments is that BMRs be 15% or 20% of the total. At 20%, a 75-unit housing development would have 15 BMR while creating the need for over 20 new BMRs -- 20 is the 1-for-3 for the 60 Market-Rate units and then an unknown need for BMRs generated by those 20 BMRs (6-7 more BMRs if the 1-for-3 ratios holds). A requirement of 25% BMRs has historically been strongly opposed by developers and their allies, and it is only getting closer to break-even.
Evidence for the above criteria is what I seek when listening to a candidate or reading his literature. In the comments please add your own criteria or what you inferred from listening to the candidates. This is NOT a place for arguing about the merits or problems of the major policy issues -- they have been and are being extensively discussed elsewhere.
1. Candidate videos and related articles:
- Individual candidate interviews with much the same questions: ^Striving for the Senate: Meet the seven candidates who want to represent you in Sacramento^.
-- ^California Senate District 12 Candidates on Top Issues^ (7:21)
-- ^Josh Becker (D)^ (36:14)
-- ^Michael Brownrigg (D)^ (37:17)
-- ^Alex Glew (R)^ (39:32)
-- ^Sally Lieber (D)^ (38:55)
-- ^Shelly Masur (D)^ (34:47)
-- ^Annie Oliva (D)^ (33:22)
-- John Webster (Libertarian) - no interview video
-- Video: ^California Senate District 13 Candidate Debate^ (1:30:23).Related article: "^Senate candidates clash over housing policies, PG&E's future at Palo Alto forum^", 2020-02-05.
2. My view of CA Republicans as a fringe party:
Part of my blog "^California Democrats seek to revive the Republican Party: Republicans expected to resist^", 2017-07-16.
3. Republic first, democracy second:
An essential characteristic of a ^republic^is the ^rule of law^.From ancient Greece onward, history had repeatedly demonstrated that popular (non-republican) democracies were highly susceptible to the ^Tyranny of the Majority (Masses)^and a variety of other existential failings. Explicitly concerned about this, the founders of the US structured the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights to avoid popular democracy. Ben Franklin said "A democracy is a sheep and two wolves deciding on what to have for lunch. Freedom is a well-armed sheep contesting the results of the decision.".A republic is intended to provide legal and societal protection for those minorities ("sheep"). The protection is crucial to everyone because you are likely to be in the minority in some important aspect of your life at some time.
4. Innovation in software development, example timespan:
Most software developers don't realize how far back "cutting-edge"technology goes. For example, in 1968 ^Douglas Engelbart^gave a landmark demo of networked computers with a graphical interface -- Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer=mouse/... (WIMP) -- and ^hypertext^(precursor to today's web).In the early 1980s, workstations came to have serious networking and WIMP.1984 saw the debut of the Macintosh with WIMP and minor networking. An adequate WIMP OS didn't arrive on the PC until Windows98 -- I remember Windows95 as tolerable only if you preemptively rebooted it several times a day to minimize the crashes. The World Wide Web, with the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), cross the threshold into widespread use around 1995.
Aside: Lead-time illustrated by the patent on the mouse expiring before it came into non-trivial usage.
5. AB5 on gig-work:
"^ 'Everybody Is Freaking Out' : Freelance Writers Scramble to Make Sense of New California Law^" - Hollywood Reporter.See paragraph 11 for the slapdash decision that 35 "submissions" to the same publisher in a year should be the limit for a freelancer.
"^California's AB5 Leaves Women Business Owners Reeling^", Forbes, 2020-02-19.
An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.
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