Tuesday, February 28, 2023

My Observations on this (Serious) Silly Season

It is now late February of an odd-numbered year. Richardson City Council and school board election season is firing up. It is what long-time Councilman John Murphy labeled "silly season." (RIP John.) It will have its share of silliness, but this time around, the consequences are severe. Now is as good a time to rev up this blog again and prognosticate. Let me share news and a few things I have learned over many election cycles.

This piece will have three parts. First, where do we stand now? Second, my general observations on local races. Third, my approach to whom I vote for or (possibly) endorse this time.  

You might think, "You aren't running for any position, so why are you telling us all this?" Several reasons. This election season is more critical than usual. Further, many more people than expected have asked for my endorsement and opinions. (How important is this election season? That will have to wait for another piece. Stay tuned.)
Where do we stand now?
The action started early with Mayor Paul Voelker dropping bombshell number one, announcing that he was not running for re-election. That set off a series of announcements that have made this the most special election in a very long time.
There are four contested seats for Mayor and city council.
The Mayor's spot will be current Place 1 member Bob Dubey vs. current Place 3 member and Mayor Pro Tem Janet DePuy. That leaves two open seats for their city council places.
In Place 1, the race will be former neighborhood association president G. Scott Waddell versus former neighborhood association president Curtis Dorian.
In Place 3, we have Dan Barrios (who lost to DePuy in 2019) facing off with long-time City Plan Commissioner Stephen Springs.
In Place 5, we have Todd Hunter against current Place 5 incumbent and Methodist Richardson Hospital President Ken Hutchenrider. [Note: Previously I noted Hutchenrider is the Methodist Richardson CEO. That was an error and it has been corrected.]
In places 2, 4, and 6, incumbents Jennifer Justice, Joe Corcoran, and Arefin Shamsul (listed respectively) have all filed for re-election and are unopposed.
Places 1, 2, 3, and 4 require the candidate to live in a particular area but everyone in Richardson votes for all council places and Mayor. Places 5, 6, and Mayor can live anywhere.
This election season's second "bombshell" also involves current Mayor Paul Voelker. Voelker announced (right after the filing deadline for candidates had passed) that he is openly endorsing current Mayor Pro Tem Janet Depuy for Mayor. Voelker, Ms. Depuy, and Mr. Dubey are still on the city council and must serve together, so that might make for some awkward sessions.
Voelker's endorsement led a Facebook commenter to say, "I'm curious to hear others' opinions on the ethics of this. It doesn't appear to violate the city's code of ethics. … it still feels a bit questionable."
The commenter's intuition was spot on. It is unusual for that to happen. That serves as a great lead-in.

My observations on local council races – right or wrong.

I have been involved in or followed these politics for about 25 years. I have been on several candidate campaign committees, all winning their respective elections. I was co-chair of the 2010 Vote Yes Richardson Bond Program committee. In the distant past, I sat in meetings of the dreaded Richardson Coalition. I have known or met every City Council member for about 25 years (except one, I believe) and close to that amount for candidates who did not win.

I hold candidates and officeholders to a high-principled standard. I expect a lot from them. I hope candidates will consider the effects of what they do while campaigning, and I expect they will concentrate on more than winning. I expect them to do better even if they do well enough. Many council members might tell you this.

I do not believe in "that's just politics" or "everyone does it, so it is OK." I do not believe in doing anything to win.

My observations:

1) When candidates do something, they give implicit permission for everyone to do likewise.
2) Cause and effect apply. When a candidate or their supporters do something, there are always effects beyond the action of merely supporting or advocating for a vote.
3) Candidates and supporters often do not profoundly perform any moral or ethical calculus on their actions during a campaign.
4) Supporters and candidates will, more often than not, excuse and ignore the adverse effects of these when it comes to their favored choices.

1) When candidates do something, they give implicit permission for everyone to do likewise.

Example: When current Mayor Voelker endorsed Ms. DePuy, he gave permission or, better said, established a precedent for other current council members to do the same. It has been chiefly an unspoken rule that sitting council members don't endorse people in other council races.

That Mr. Voelker bends this unspoken rule is not meant to cast aspersions upon him. He likely considered his endorsement's ethical and precedent-setting implications and its effects. Nonetheless, it is now open season on these endorsements, and if "everyone does it, " it puts a thumb on the scale.

2) Cause and effect apply. When a candidate or their supporters do something, there are always effects beyond the action of merely supporting or advocating for a vote.

Example: Partisanship. City council campaigns are nonpartisan. No candidate has an R or D or any other letter next to their name when running, and there are no primaries. Rules that spell out municipal elections are nonpartisan are written into state law.

That said, nothing prevents a candidate from being openly partisan. If a candidate flaunts partisan voters or intentionally appears partisan, the public may conclude that all local politics are partisan. According to one viewpoint, this can have the deleterious effect of dragging (the obvious) negativities of partisan races into our local ones, including (but by no means limited to) the effect of voting for candidates based on the perceived party of membership as opposed to competence or qualification.

3) Candidates and supporters often do not profoundly perform any moral or ethical calculus on their actions during a campaign.

Example: Quasi-threats against an opponent. One example occurred during a recently contested RISD board race; Lynn Davenport was running against Dr. Kristen Kuhne for an open board seat that Kuhne ended up winning. Ms. Davenport, after this board race, would become known for criticizing measures involving the pandemic. She was also fired for not wearing a facemask as an election worker. Some of her recent Twitter posts have tended toward conspiracy theories, such as (seemingly) endorsing chem trail conspiracies. I'll let the reader be the judge.

In her race against Kristen Kuhne, she claimed she was the victim of threats. During a school board meeting where she was in the audience, she allegedly received a message that said, "I see you @lynndavenport....you didn't want to tell others about your secret?" Davenport blamed Ms. Kuhne's political consultant C.P. Henry.

I met both candidates during this election season before this incident occurred. I knew neither before that. Both asked for my endorsement. I endorsed Ms. Kuhne, and my name appeared in her campaign literature.

To my knowledge, Ms. Kuhne and her supporters did not denounce this kind of activity. Ms. Kuhne did not, to my knowledge, state that her consultant had nothing to do with it. I would affectionately characterize Dr. Kuhne as an education nerd and naïve in politics, so I don't blame her. These incidents occurred in her first months of being a politician, where her main goal was service and not so much politics.

Few local candidates step up and say, "I didn't make that statement/attack, but it is out of line" when their opponent is attacked.

4) Supporters and candidates will, more often than not, excuse and ignore the adverse effects of these when it comes to their favored choices.

Richardson Coalition Attack ads: It goes without saying. If you have been in Richardson for any time in the past 15 years and followed the local politics, then you have heard of the nebulous and mysterious Richardson Coalition. If you have a conscience, then you have noticed their attack ads.

In recent elections, they have backed off the attack ads, but few will forget the infamous attack ad they ran during Richardson's first direct Mayoral election in 2013 between Laura (then) Maczka and Amir Omar. In that advertisement, The Richardson Coalition negatively spun Omar's personal bankruptcy from his 20s and put a negative spin on his divorce settlement, among other accusations

Both candidates asked for my endorsement in this election. I stayed out of that part and endorsed neither candidate.

I was appalled by the advertisement when it came to my door. One family law attorney told me, "They are taking some typical issues in divorce and making them look nefarious." Another stated about Omar's bankruptcy because of business: "Nobody wants bankruptcy, but it looks completely normal." Without going into a point-by-point rebuttal, The Richardson Coalition's result was to mislead the public.

While we expect meanness and misleading attacks in politics, this was at a different level because of what occurred afterward.

When questioned during the League of Women Voter's candidate forum, then-candidate Laura Maczka said the issue was between Omar and the Richardson Coalition. She ignored the negative poisoning effect for which she was the beneficiary and her close relationship with the Richardson Coalition. The answer was appalling and tone-deaf.

As many readers know, Laura Maczka, now Laura Jordan, ultimately became Mayor and has been twice convicted of bribery and other federal crimes for her actions while in office. Her case is on appeal. She no longer lives in Richardson. On the other hand, Amir Omar still lives in Richardson, has been active in the community, and has the respect of many Richardson residents.

The Richardson Coalition has yet to apologize. Over the years, I have asked members of the Richardson Coalition and supporters about these attack ads. During these personal conversations, not a single one expressed regret or felt they were misleading. I see that as a clear example of observation #4 above. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I have no doubt members of the Richardson Coalition would see themselves as being unfairly maligned.

What is my approach this election season?

Because of my advocacy within the city and dull hobby of watching what the city does (the resume of which I will spare you at this time), I am asked by candidates for endorsements every election. I have appeared in some candidates’ campaign literature. I usually get text messages or emails asking my opinions from residents. Sometimes I tell my neighbors whom I endorse, but sometimes I respond with, “I am voting for this person or that” rather than a full-throated endorsement.
This year is no exception. So far, I have endorsed no candidate.
Because this season is unusual, I am taking this approach:
All bets are off. If you want my vote, you have to convince me. If I endorsed (or didn’t endorse) someone in the past, then that is no indication of this year. The slate is wiped clean as much as it can be.
If a candidate wants me to put a sign in my yard or wants my endorsement, then they have to meet with me. I am not asking that they do. It is up to them. I am just a guy with a belly button, so I do not expect that all will reach out. I have already informed several candidates who have reached out, met with one already and begun arranging meetings with a few others.
I make this offer to opposed and unopposed candidates equally. I make no guarantees that I will make an endorsement in any race.
I have a set of fixed questions I ask, and many are not softball questions. I won’t go easy on them. Better that someone challenges them in a personal conversation so that if they learn something, then The Public is better off for it.
Candidates: if you are a candidate reading this, you can contact me if you like.
Readers: I am grateful if you have read this far. If you have found any of these writings helpful, I am thankful and ask you to share this with friends. Stay tuned for more.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the background information on some events from past City of Richardson and RISD elections. I look forward to reading more. Let me just comment on one of your own points. Yes, a sitting Council member making an endorsement in another council member's race is unusual. But in 2013, six of the seven sitting council member endorsed Laura Mazka for mayor. This year, Mayor Voelker's endorsement comes while he is still mayor, but he is not on the ballot. For me, that distinction makes a difference.