20 May 2009

SD 31 Vacancy Election Tonight

There are nine people running for the vacancy in Colorado Senate District 31 (replacing Jennifer Veiga) at the Democracy Party vacancy committee meeting at Morey Middle School in Denver this evening starting at six and probably lasting until ten, if all three rounds of voting are necessary for one of the candidates to receive majority support.

I am on the fence, although I am not indifferent to the stream of campaigning that has taken place. Last night, for example, found Pat Steadman and Alex Sanchez on my front porch, more calls on my telephone, and more literature from Patrick Byrne and others in my mailbox. A steady stream of personal visits, phone calls, and literature have bombarded me since the race began, and I've studied it.

I do care about how much effort a candidate is putting into the race, because it is a proxy for how hard that candidate will work to be re-elected. If you can't work hard enough to make your case to an audience of less than a couple hundred voters who are actually interested in politics, how can you make your case to 110,000 people in the district in a general election.

For example, Elmer "Butch" Hicks and John Maslanik have made virtually no effort, which is apparent to me anyway, to seek my vote, at the same time that other candidates are making multiple contacts in person and by phone, having supporters call, and getting out multiple rounds of literature. I personally know that John Maslanik is a good guy and loyal democrat, and I'm sure that the same is true of Butch Hicks, although I've never met him in person. But, if you are going to be a candidate you have to be more dynamic than either of them have been, even though both have experience as candidates for local office and Hicks has held office as a city council person.

As I noted before, jumping into a campaign at the very last minute, like John S. Wren, while permitted by the rules, shows a lack of initiative and commitment. And, the way he conducts himself in his day job undermines my ability to trust him.

Campaign effort isn't everything, of course. Patrick Byrne has mounted a reasonably vigorous campaign. But, as he himself highlights, he is young, he hasn't been involved in the party for very long, he doesn't have long standing connections to the district or Colorado, and he isn't long on political connections. He thinks that TABOR and the state budget, issue with which he is familiar from his experience as a budget analyst, are the most important issues facing the state. And as he sums it up:

TABOR doesn't care if you've been a community organizer, the Gallagher Amendment doesn't care how many old-school politicians are endorsing you, and Colorado's backwards urban renewal laws don't care how long you've had a (D) next to your name. At this time, SD31 needs an honest, fair-dealing technocrat like myself to untie the knots.

This is a great pitch for his position at his current job as a budget analyst for the Governor. But, this doesn't cut it in a run for State Senate. Staffers need to be technocrats. Legislating, particularly in the State Senate where a majority caucus of twenty men and women must cover every single issue facing the state, is a job for a generalist who is good with people. The problem is not an inability to find accounting tricks or to know that the state budget is broken. The problem is how to use your coalition building skills to build the political consensus to fix it. Expertise is a price of admission to meaningful budget discussions. But, once you have crossed that threshold, budgets document your values, something which has little to do with expertise or intelligence. Age and seniority aren't everything, but voters need some provable way to know that your heart is in the right place and that you can be an effective team player in the ultimate cooperative game.

I'm also puzzled by Bryne's decision to take up immigration as a key issue in a diary at Colorado Pols posted during his campaign, when running for state office. Once again, he doesn't seem to have the right political instincts.

In contrast, Doug Williams, whose background is in political work and real estate development, got in late, although not at the last minute, but understands very well that the job calls for a coalition building generalist who knows how to run campaigns and persuade legislators to take action. He presents as an effective person who has mounted a solid campaign once he got started. His very strong ties to Texas are not a plus, but it is hard to know how deep his Texas values run. It is also hard to know how effective he would be at developing a rapport with the people of SD 31. He has twinkle in his eye maverick charm, but is not exactly salt of the earth that your average SD 31 voter can easily relate to either.

For a political old hand, Ann Ragsdale, a Colorado General Assembly veteran, has run a surprising low key campaign. She is clearly the top dog among the Adams County candidates, and she has proven that she can do the job. But, it isn't entirely clear what issues she is running on this time around, and she doesn't appear to be reaching out vigorously to Denver members of the vacancy committee. Her reputation while in the General Assembly was as a centerist, which is a great thing to be in a close district or when Democrats are having a hard time getting coalitions together on issues that can be made law, but isn't as much as a virtue in a safely Democratic party controlled district when Democrats control the House, Senate and Governorship.

Pat Steadman and Alex Sanchez have both mounted extremely solid campaigns for this race that show their commitment to the seat. Both men have personal stories that make clear that they understand extremely well how average people in SD 31 see the world. Steadman's progressive political credentials, and knowledge of the legislative process are unimpeachable, and I know him to be an intelligent man. Sanchez makes his living delivering carefully prepared public statements for the Denver Public Schools and it shows. Sanchez knows how to give a short, effective pitch.

As I think through the matter, perhaps the biggest concern about Steadman is whether he will be able to transition smoothly from fighting the power to being in power. Acting as a scrappy street fighter on particular issues is a different role than presuming the kind of entitlement that makes it possible for you to make an unwieldy state government bow to your will. Then again, at the rank and file level of the legislature being part of a base which reliably votes and encourages people to vote the right way has its value.

Sanchez has more experience acting from a position of authority, but is not terribly quick on his feet when asked unexpected hard questions. He doesn't have much of a public policy paper trail either, so it is hard to know how his early life, corporate experience, and time as a member of the top administrative team for the Denver Public Schools will collectively impact his decision making when new economic issues come up. I trust him to make decisions in good faith while thinking carefully about the needs of ordinary people in his district. I'm not always sure what conclusions that internal dialog will lead him to in the end.

Jill Conrad has also mounted a vigorous campaign, although not the most relentless one and wins the prize for the flashiest campaign moment, distributing a DVD to every member of the vacancy committee in addition to her literature. She also wins props in the ability to campaign to diverse constituencies department for the fact that she is a sitting elected official who won office in an at large Denver seat on the Denver Public Schools Board, a race she won as the teacher's union candidate in 2005 despite the fact that her opponent, Brad Buchanan, raised more money and was supported by most of the current school board and the Mayor's wife, Helen Thorpe. Jill Conrad's education policy expertise is clear. She is a liberal with an emphasis on bread and butter issues. She is remarkably coy about her roots and background, although she is well spoken and her obvious affluence belies her description of herself as a mere "PhD student." Her life before getting her master's degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1997 is basically a blank slate. She is a competent politician with no obvious flaws, but also has no obvious connection to the district other than her home address.

I won't reach conclusions here, and haven't in my own mind. There are some candidates who will have a very high hurdle to win my vote in the vacancy committee election, and others who are front runners, but the process in this race with so many candidates and multiple rounds of voting in short succession means that I may end up voting for a backup choice in later rounds of voting in any case.

No comments: