by Carolyn Chase
The election mailers are arriving. TV and radio commercials are running in earnest. I can't help but wonder how something so important -- government -- is utterly trivialized and distorted in so many ways.
With so much at stake, evidently, almost anything goes. It's a battleground where survival of the fittest is tested by a daunting gauntlet of demands to please, rushes to judgment and salvos launched to get attention.
Given that the purpose of every political advertisement is to promote one result -- or demean another -- with the overriding, ulterior motive of persuading a specific outcome, I have to wonder how anyone can believe the accusations and claims made in campaign ads and brochures.
Each politician's desire to win combines with short media formats to create plenty of opportunities for misleading claims and accusations. This is problematic, because accusations with merit deserve to be heard. On the other hand, attacks without merit and out of context, and the manipulation of incomplete information are virtually impossible to refute -- if a campaign can even afford to respond.
There is also a tendency to make nonspecific, feel-good claims that are either not practical or, with further analysis, wouldn't provide real solutions at a reasonable cost. The costs are seldom brought up at all. Watching the debates, you'd think everyone running was a tax-and-spend Republican! They're all going to solve the housing crisis, traffic, crime, education and clean water. "Give the voters what they want" is the order of the day. The inconvenient fact that everyone can't get what they want without a massive tax increase -- if even then -- is conveniently ignored.
The more manipulative campaigns take it one step further by making claims about themselves or accusations about others, regardless of whether it is consistent with their record or under the purview of the office they are seeking.
Mayoral candidate Barbara Warden has "gone negative" with recent TV ads attacking perceived front-runners Ron Roberts and Peter Q. Davis. The negative aspect is less disturbing than the disconnect in the substance of the accusations. Warden disses Roberts for voting for the 4S Ranch project, implying that today's traffic problems are somehow related.
There are at least two major problems with this. First, every insider at the city of San Diego would tell you that if the 4S Ranch property had been located within the city, Warden would have been leading the charge for it. She had no objections to equivalent projects due west of 4S. Secondly, unlike past projects, all of the state Route 56 corridor projects were linked with major contingencies connected to the completion of SR 56 and improvements to I-15 -- and with moneys paid in advance of construction.
Marion Dodson is using the same hypocritical approach against Pam Slater in the Board of Supervisors' race. Dodson is even more blatant in misrepresenting Slater's handling of 4S Ranch. Slater led the charge to require 4S Ranch to pay for freeway improvements -- as well as many other important design criteria -- before construction begins. That was the first time any local politician had been able to achieve direct payments for freeway improvements. While Dodson accuses Slater of being the developer's candidate, Dodson herself has much stronger personal stakes in the real estate industry than Slater.
Scott Peters, candidate for City Council District 1, wins the "prize" as the target of the most egregious character assassination mailer produced in San Diego politics for years. Evidently a believer in negative opposition research, opponent Lisa Ross tracked down and extracted quotes from a case Peters had defended while serving as county counsel and defending taxpayers against issues over the county's beleaguered landfill in San Marcos. Even though Peters received the endorsements of the League of Conservation Voters and numerous environmentalists, "Neighbors for Lisa Ross" has launched a smear mailer labeling him "a toxic-waste dump attorney." No toxic waste happened to be involved, so this hysterical attempt to misrepresent Peters' record is fear-baiting at its worst. This can only be a sign of true desperation. Ross never raised these issues at the dozens of forums the candidates have attended so that Peters could have answered accusations before the voters. Instead, she has employed the same last-minute attack tactics that turned people off to her political mentor, Peter Navarro. Is this what she means by her campaign slogan, "Bringing People Together"?
Extracting quotes out-of-context and deliberately distorting the facts in order to serve political ambitions is not a quality we need in lawmakers. It's one thing to honestly disagree about something. It's another to lie or misrepresent positions. Each and every campaign communication reveals information about that campaign's character, values and resources -- and the length to which that candidate feels it's fair to go in his or her attempt to gain power.
If candidates don't or won't exercise good judgment in running responsible campaigns, then we can only conclude they won't exercise good judgment in other decisions either. Above all, I think that American voters do want to believe our politicians. Unfortunately, more often that not, we just can't. About the only believable things I can find in campaigns these days, other than the occasional breath of fresh air in a public debate, are the campaign finance reports and the independent endorsements. In the end, those say much more than any piece of campaign literature or advertisement.
Carolyn Chase is the editor of the San Diego Earth Times.