Oakland Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Jane Brunner and the Oakland police union have unleashed a series of vicious attack ads in their attempt to unseat Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and City Attorney Barbara Parker. The flurry of hit-piece mailers also contain numerous false and misleading statements that grossly distort Kaplan and Parker’s positions and their records in office. Kaplan told the Express late last week that her campaign is preparing a mailer to fight back against the false attacks, but Parker’s campaign said it likely would not, and plans instead to continue to point to Parker’s accomplishments in office.
Positive campaign ads can be effective, but not responding to attacks could prove to be a mistake. Numerous studies have shown that negative political advertising and campaigning works. That’s why politicians do it. Research also shows that attack ads are most effective when the candidate being attacked does not respond. There are several recent examples that prove this point.
In the first presidential debate, Republican Mitt Romney aggressively went after President Barack Obama, and Obama didn’t respond effectively. Within days, Obama’s lead in the polls evaporated. In fact, if Romney wins, the first debate will be main the reason why.
Likewise, last week the Express published an election story about how Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi might win the race for Alameda County supervisor because she’s been extremely critical of her opponents, and they have not responded, nor have they mentioned publicly that she was convicted of shoplifting just last year (see “Hayashi Might Win This Thing,” 10/24).
Finally, there’s the 2010 example of then-Councilwoman Jean Quan relentlessly attacking the perceived frontrunner in the Oakland mayor’s race — ex-state Senator Don Perata. Quan’s campaign produced numerous mailers that went after Perata aggressively. His campaign didn’t respond. Quan then pulled out a narrow victory.
De La Fuente and Brunner are obviously hoping for the same type of turnaround for their flagging campaigns. And the engineer of their hit pieces against Kaplan and Parker is none other than Perata’s old campaign manager, Larry Tramutola. If anyone knows from first-hand experience the effectiveness of negative campaigning, it’s Tramutola. Indeed, no political operative in the East Bay has had more success attacking opponents than he.
Typically, political campaigns go negative when they’re behind. According to a poll commissioned by the Oakland Jobs and Housing Coalition, Brunner was trailing Parker 31 percent to 49 percent as of September 30. De La Fuente was losing 23 percent to 39 percent to Kaplan.
De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops’ union, which strongly supports the two candidates, responded to the bad poll numbers with a barrage of hit-piece mailers against Kaplan and Parker. The numerous falsehoods include a claim by the cops’ union that the Oakland City Attorney’s Office under Parker’s command spent $10 million on outside attorneys in 2011/2012. In truth, Parker’s office spent $3.86 million on outside attorneys in 2011/2012, city records show. The mailers from the cops’ union and Brunner also fail to disclose that the Oakland City Attorney’s Office has been forced to hire outside attorneys to represent the city in lawsuits because Brunner and the city council have repeatedly slashed the number of city staff attorneys in so-called “cost-cutting” moves. The mailers also fail to note that much of the outside attorneys’ costs stem from the city being sued for police officer misconduct. One of Brunner’s mailers also claims that she will hire police officers by saving $10 million in the City Attorney’s Office, but the mailer fails to note how she would achieve such savings, and it doesn’t mention that she voted for the police layoffs in 2010. Doug Linney, Parker’s campaign manager, called the mailers “bogus.”
The hit pieces from De La Fuente and the cops’ union against Kaplan are also extremely misleading. They essentially blame Kaplan for the city’s crime spike in the past two years, contending that she was preoccupied with other issues. The mailers fail to disclose, however, that De La Fuente was the primary backer of the police layoffs, which occurred before the crime spike and resulted in the department being understaffed. The mailers also don’t mention that Kaplan voted against the police layoffs, nor do they disclose that De La Fuente and Brunner helped torpedo a plan last year by Kaplan and other councilmembers to rehire all the cops who had been laid off in 2010 who were still looking for jobs.
“The real scandal is that he cut the cops, and now he’s trying to fool people into thinking that I cut the cops and I caused the crime crisis,” Kaplan said, referring to De La Fuente. “This really shows a level of desperation on his point — and it comes on the heels of polls that show I have a significant lead in the polls.”
It’s clear that De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops’ union decided to go negative because they were behind, but why tell falsehoods about their opponents and grossly distort their records? The answer is simple: because it works. Romney and Paul Ryan are living proof of how lies and distortions can be a path to victory. And recent research shows that if campaigns tell lies often enough, people will believe them, especially in the absence of any information that counters the lies.
This is especially true for so-called low-information voters — voters who don’t pay close attention to politics and don’t read newspapers regularly. Oftentimes, the only political information these voters receive during the course of a campaign is political advertisements. In local elections, that means mailers. And if they get a barrage of mailers that spout falsehoods about certain candidates, then these voters are more likely to believe those lies — especially if the candidates being attacked don’t respond with mailers of their own.
Kaplan said her campaign is preparing a response mailer. She’s also urging more volunteers to help with phone banking and door-to-door campaigning to help offset the false and negative attacks. “A lot of people are outraged,” she said. “And we’re encouraging people to get involved.”
Linney said, however, that Parker’s campaign plans to not respond directly to the hit pieces and instead will continue to focus on the positive things she’s done in office. “We could spend money trying to defend ourselves; we could spend money going after Brunner and OPOA,” Linney said of the police union. “But we’ve decided to spend money telling voters the truth about Barbara’s record … that she’s a professional.”
These types of positive campaign messages are important, but candidates that solely depend on them are taking a risk. In fact, the campaigns that are usually most vulnerable to negative and false attacks are the ones that decide to take the “high road.” Again, President Obama in the first debate is the perfect example of what can happen when a candidate decides to remain positive and doesn’t respond to an aggressive attack.
SEIU and Measure T
It’s no secret that public-employee unions have been under siege. During the past several years, they’ve endured widespread layoffs, pay reductions, and pension cuts. And so it’s no surprise that public-worker unions typically endorse ballot measures that raise revenues for the public agencies that employ their members. It’s why numerous unions throughout California are backing Proposition 30: The measure will raise revenues and result in fewer cuts to state and local government services and workers. It’s also why public employees in the City of Berkeley, who are members of the union SEIU 1021, wanted to endorse Measure T, a ballot initiative that promises to generate millions in new revenues for city government.
Yet for some reason, those Berkeley city employees were overruled by the union’s county leadership. And so SEIU 1021 may now be one of the first unions in Northern California to oppose a ballot measure that would raise funds for the public agency that employs its members — and thus help that agency, the City of Berkeley, avoid more devastating cuts to jobs, pensions, and pay.
In interviews with the Express, SEIU’s county leadership would not explain why the Berkeley city employees were overruled, nor would the leadership give any reason for why SEIU 1021 was opposing Measure T.
The ballot measure would allow dense developments on six underused sites in West Berkeley. The Berkeley firefighters’ union has endorsed the measure in part because the new developments would likely generate at least $6 million in permit-fee revenues for the city alone, said David Ross, a retired Berkeley firefighter who is still active in the union and was part of the local Berkeley endorsement process.
Ross also noted that the housing and commercial growth generated by Measure T would create millions of dollars of new real estate transfer, property, and sales tax revenues for the city. “And Measure T is not going to cost the City of Berkeley a dime,” Ross added. The measure also includes no new or increased taxes for existing city residents.
Ross confirmed that the political committee representing local Berkeley chapters of SEIU 1021 had voted to endorse Measure T, before being overruled. “They all wanted it — they actually endorsed Measure T,” he said.
The county leadership for SEIU 1021 instructed Ariana Casanova, the East Bay political coordinator for the union, to answer questions posed by this reporter on the reasons for the county’s decision. Casanova said that, typically, the county leadership political committee adopts the recommendations made by the local union members who would be affected by the measure.
But Casanova would not comment on why the county leadership committee decided not to adopt the recommendation of Berkeley city employees of SEIU 1021, saying it was internal information. She would only say that the county political committee that makes the final decisions on what to endorse decided to oppose Measure T.
When asked why a public-employee union would oppose a ballot measure that could help a public agency avoid budget cuts, Casanova responded, “I really wish I understood it myself.” And when this reporter noted that he could not remember another East Bay public-employee union having ever before decided to oppose a ballot measure that would raise revenues for a public agency that employs its members, Casanova said, “I don’t recall a similar situation either.”
The Alameda County Building Trades Council union also has endorsed Measure T. Andreas Cluver, the union’s treasurer-secretary, told the Express that his union believes the new developments made possible by Measure T will create good union construction jobs. He also said that he received verbal commitments for project-labor agreements from several of the site developers to use union workers.
SEIU’s decision on Measure T also is at the heart of a controversy in the election. Opponents of Measure T filed an ethics complaint with the city, contending that the measure’s supporters had falsely claimed in mailers that SEIU 1021 had endorsed it. Darrell de Tienne, one of the leaders of the pro-Measure T group, said that they had thought SEIU 1021 had endorsed the measure after hearing that the Berkeley city employee committee had voted to do so. He added that once he was informed that the county union leadership had overruled the three Berkeley SEIU chapters, he removed the SEIU 1021 endorsement from the Yes on Measure T website, but that it was too late to do anything about the mailers.
It should also be noted that the anti-Measure T campaign has repeatedly published false and misleading information about the measure. For example, Measure T opponents have repeatedly put out campaign materials falsely claiming that the measure would allow high-rises next to Aquatic Park. In truth, Measure T excludes Aquatic Park from development. In addition, opponents of Measure T have engaged in dirty political tricks, defacing and destroying pro-Measure T signs throughout the city.
When asked why the pro-Measure T campaign hasn’t filed ethics complaints against opponents, de Tienne said his group thought about it but “decided to take the high road. We believe in what we’re trying to do.”
So why did the county political leadership of SEIU 1021 do what it did? Both Cluver of the building trades union and Ross of the firefighters’ union said they were surprised by what happened. Cluver added that he believes the decision is connected to the mayor’s race. SEIU 1021 also has endorsed ultra-left Councilman Kriss Worthington, who opposes Measure T, over Mayor Tom Bates, who supports it.
Zoo Spending Tops $800,000
Finance reports released late last week revealed that the private nonprofit that runs the Oakland Zoo had cut checks for more than $800,000 to support Measure A1, making the parcel tax campaign one of the most expensive political contests in the East Bay this year. The reports showed that the East Bay Zoological Society wrote two checks in recent weeks for $200,000 and $225,000, which were in addition to the $375,000 that the nonprofit already spent on the campaign. In addition, the reports indicated that the Zoological Society is still operating its campaign headquarters at the zoo, which violates local and state laws because the citizens of Oakland own the property and because it’s illegal to run political campaigns on public land (see “Oakland Zoo Operators Violate Election Laws,” 10/24).
The huge donations to the Measure A1 campaign also come in stark contrast to assertions made by the Zoological Society that it’s in desperate need of money and will have to eliminate programs for children if Alameda County voters reject the property tax measure. The Express previously reported that the Zoological Society’s federal tax returns show that the nonprofit appears to have plenty of money. From 2008 through 2010, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, the Zoological Society reported to the IRS that it had net operating surpluses averaging $2.6 million per year.
As of October 24, the Zoological Society had committed to spending at least $819,620 in support of Measure A1. Attendees at a recent public forum on the measure said that Zoological Society Executive Director Joel Parrott told the audience that his organization planned to spend $1 million trying to get Measure A1 passed.