Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Content-Free Campaigning: 2 of 2

Boston's elections have more than the fun mayor's race. The heavily contested at-large city council one has more players, but fewer well-defined problem/solution sets.

Looking at the two candidates I spoke with at length, Ayanna Pressley and Andrew Kenneally, I think both are highly likely to survive the September 22nd primary. Then they'll have to be decisive in their public appearances to win on November 3rd.

For their websites, neither will be taught in political science or communications classes as they are now. I admit it unreasonable to expect a councilor candidate to have a voter-converting site though.

Part 1 of this post looks at the larger group of candidates for the at-large contest.

Does Online Matter?

A big question rises about how important web presence is. I'm both policy wonky and tech geeky, so a powerful and definitive website is very important to me, but I don't believe that most voters think that way. A small minority are regular blog readers, a startling number have trouble with search engines to the point they don't bother, and it's safe to assert that the vast majority of those with internet at home or work don't use it routinely to remain politically astute and aware.

Yet for the pathetic minority of us, websites may well be key deciding factors in whom to vote for in September and November here. Candidates largely know that and try to cover that base. In addition, both Pressley and Kenneally use Facebook and social media. In terms of FB, Pressley's presence is LITE and twitter ready — short and smiley. Kenneally's FB pages are a lot beefier, with many more supporters and a lot of comments and interaction. Yet, they are within striking distance of each other and ahead of most other candidates.

The websites themselves are in the upper tier for this race, but still annoy me. I want real platforms with solid proposals. As a disclaimer, I advised Kenneally to do so and in my report on Pressley's chat, I noted the shortcoming. Yet, I am aware that they, not I, are the candidates and ones risking while I just jaw and type.

Pressley uses the whom-I-know ploy much more than the what-I've-done one. Her site associates her with both Sen. Ted Kennedy and Kerry and doesn't even bother with a RECORD or ACCOMPLISHMENTS tab. Its ISSUES area has three:
  • Education. Support teachers. Make schools safe. Involve parents. She offers no proposals.
  • Housing. Provide affordable options. Somehow (unspecified) protect renters from foreclosures. Somehow (unspecified) enable community organizations to convert foreclosures into affordable housing.
  • Crime. Get ideas on what to do from those in tough neighborhoods. Reform CORI regulations. Commit ourselves to public safety.
  • Constituent Services. She'd do pretty much with other councilors already do (and Kerry does) in assigning neighborhoods to specific staff members. They'll liaise like good liaisons.
At several points she also confronts the personal history of a junkie father who was convicted and in prison several times. She notes with some credibility that this sensitizes her to such problems in the larger community she wants to serve and that it would inform her thinking as councilor.

Kenneally's site is the same and different. Similarities include association with well-known local pols. While he worked in D.C. for U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, people will perk up more to know he was ex-Councilor Maura Hennigan's chief of staff and Councilor Michael Flaherty's director of policy and communications. Pressley's insinuation that knowing Kerry will help the city is less solid than Kenneally's statements that he learned the players and procedures of counci from two long-term Boston pros.

Like Pressley, Kenneally can't honestly claim to have held the post or any similar elected office. Yet in his RECORD section, he lists a long series of areas from education through technology where he researched, analyzed and proposed solutions for major and minor problems. That's what a good to great councilor needs to do or have done for him.

He can't yet be sure that voters will click around his site and find both his associations with Congress and the council. He also can't be sure they will consider the bio and record info together and extrapolate his potential from them. The information is there, but it is like a four-piece jigsaw puzzle; it is easy to solve but requires assembly, by one voter at a time.

Pressley seems to think that her association as an aide to a U.S. Senator will translate in voters' minds into local competence. Kerry's office will have little if any impact in home-rule at the state level or other council operations in Boston. Yet, he is known and generally liked here. Wearing his figurative team jacket can't hurt.

Amusingly though, Pressley does not seem to have analyzed a lot of web presences. As evidence, consider a post at Blue Mass Group under her name.
This week we launched a new and greatly improved ayannapressley.com. Our website is a reflection of the campaign we are running and the type of City Councilor I strive to be. This site is dedicated to giving voters like you easy access to this groundbreaking campaign with interactive tools ranging from signing up to "Go Green" - which allows environmentally conscious voters to go paperless by only receiving emails from the campaign, to our "Share Your Thoughts" and "Ayanna Action" sections.
That reads like a different website that I see there. While few of us expect whiz-bang web works from a city office candidate, she is the only one to claim any miracles. There really isn't any wow factor there.

I shall certainly pay attention to the primary and try to figure how important whom they know becomes in the result. Most of the candidates can't play that card.

As described in the Kenneth Cooper cover piece of Sunday's Boston Globe maggy, this is an unusual contest, with multiple candidates of color, including four African Americans. The daily continues not so subtly to favor Pressley here, giving her a gigantic picture in the lead spread, relegating the three black men to one-third page images in a row inside. It then slathers the lead spread with her and about her.

Praise for What?

That seems to work elsewhere too. She's gotten the most endorsements, which so far are largely from unions and from black pols. Of course, the published endorses tend not to reflect the platform and planks Pressley doesn't display. She fills some groups' check boxes, like she's black and a female. Others are impressed by Kennedy (Joseph) and Kerry connections.

For example:
  • From her website endorsement section, political consultant Joyce Ferriabough, "I can't tell you how thrilled I am that my friend and sister Ayanna Pressley is running for City Council at large. I've been trying to convince her to run for years because I know firsthand the kind of commitment, passion and dedication she brings to public service and to the people of Boston because of her outstanding work for Congressman Kennedy and Senator Kerry. "
  • Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, "The perspective she will bring to the Council as a woman of color is tremendously important, and one that the Boston City Council, in its 100 year history, has never had. Ayanna has great political and constituent service experience and knows this landscape well."
  • From the Mass Women's Political Caucus (MWPC) website, Executive Director Sheila Capone-Wulsin, "Ayanna will bring a unique voice and skillset to the Boston City Council. Many of us are familiar with her exemplary, collaborative approach and can-do style in connecting the residents of Boston and the state to resources and services, as an Aide to former Congressman Joseph Kennedy and Senator John Kerry... In addition, she would be the first woman of color ever to serve and only the third woman elected at-large in the Council's 100 year history."
Her endorsements speak grandly of her concerns for women, working families and so forth. None goes to why being aware of and caring about those would translate into ideas, action and results. Yet that is largely true of the whole at-large field.

At one extreme, a few have very little content on their sites. Trabucco is somewhere else with a panacea type of site that seems like a Dr. Bonner's Magic Soap label. Most are similar to Pressley's in naming problem areas but providing only broad generalizations of where to turn to for correction.

Really only Ego Ezedi's platform looks thought through. He offers a limited set of concern areas, but each has specific approaches and steps toward improvement or solution. The page looks like he thinks like a councilor and reflects his managerial experience running the Roxbury Y. If he can get other councilors and the mayor to buy into his ideas, he'd be a productive councilor.

According to David Bernstein at Talking Politics, Ezedi is not yet in the fund-raising mix. The two incumbents are way ahead, with Arroyo, Kenneally and Pressley in contention. There probably is no relationship between platform-creation/good idea capability and fund-raising skills. Both together would be ideal, but separate campaign managers and money people are the norm in such races for reasons. Just as a good elected official hires and uses great staff, making things happen tend to be different skills from formulating the policies.

Both Deval Patrick and Barack Obama campaigned in part on that new ideal of being change agents. That includes getting disparate groups to cooperate on common goals. That also looks to get public buy-in by soliciting opinion and more important, by acting on those suggestions to give the voters a sense of ownership of the office and politician.

I'll watch to see how much Boston voters are willing to accept an extreme of such a spongy position. Will they accept Pressley's claims that she can accomplish (the unspecified) whatever by finding out what the people want and getting her peers behind her to make it happen?

Moreover, the council is far from as black as the city and far from as female. For those who want balance, would it be enough to go for the pretty woman, who worked for John Kerry for a decade, or would a more specific and articulate black or Latino male be more enticing?

Finally, when roughly half the candidates fall aside at the primary, will the end-game strategy require reworks of speeches, online information, and debating postures? I think the answer to that is that it will be an entirely different game when it's likely six primary winners will scramble and scratch for the two seats that won't go to the incumbents.

It's probable that late September through October will find much more clearly defined at-large candidates. They'll call out each other orally, in print and electronically on generalities and ill-defined goals. They'll be one upping left, right and from behind. For us observers, that could be a very fun six weeks or so.

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