Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, August 9, 2010

Politics 101---A Basic Primer of Political Strategy for Political Neophytes

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
August 9, 2010

Today is my birthday and I should be getting reams of presents….but I’m reversing things a bit and giving out gifts of political advice from one who has been closely involved in politics for over 35 years as a Federal and Provincial Constituency Executive Member, Campaign Organizer and Strategist, Voting Delegate at a number of National and Provincial Leadership Conventions, and Federal Candidate for the governing party.

This column is written out of concern of a “Code of Conduct” campaign signed by 19 of Oshawa’s 27 “new” council candidates. The real concern is that this code of niceness may discourage some candidates from doing the basic and necessary job of every candidate in every campaign….that is, highlighting incumbent and council shortcomings to make the case that change is necessary.

The first and most basic lesson in Politics 101 is that voters never replace incumbents because they’ve found someone better. Incumbents are only replaced because they’ve messed up so badly...so incensing the public that change is demanded. And competitors to the incumbents have to make sure they stoke the flames of this public discontent. Public memory is short….and new politicians must make sure the public never forgets.

This “niceness code” makes no more sense than promoting the nicest person in the company as its CEO. In making that choice, niceness is not a factor…nor will it be a factor for election to council. Wise voters will be voting for candidates they feel will be effective leaders...but voters have to be concerned enough about the actions of the present politicians that there is an “ocean current” sentiment for change. We are seeing much criticism of council in “letters to the editor” and successful politicians will have to “stoke the flames” of this latent unrest if they hope to have a chance at election.

The naming of individuals, which is discouraged by the “Code of Conduct” Campaign, is part of the process. Election to City Council is not like getting elected as President of a High School Student Council, which is a popularity contest where niceness is important. Real politics is a savage “blood sport” with huge consequences for the public and where only the tough and thick-skinned survive.

Another problem with the “Code of Conduct” Campaign is that signing the code may be the “first lie” of some candidates who have no intention of it having any impact on their campaign behavior. They may see political merit on being on the “nice” list, even though it is unlikely to lead to many votes or any change in their conduct. Signing the code may only highlight the hypocrites, which in itself may not be a bad thing.

While there are many astute and knowledgeable voters, mostly because they are engaged with the council over some issue like high taxes, the student rental housing problem around the university, the $46,000 MBA funding issue, the $250,000 Cullen Gardens Miniatures issue, the burgeoning city debt which has risen from $15M to over $160M under John Gray’s administration, the Goodman Pond beaver slaughter issue, the Mayor’s $46,000 Birthday party issue, the demolition of many of our city arenas, the wasteful $20M demolition and rebuilding of Council Chambers and “A” wing of city hall, or the last election’s Ward/General Vote plebiscite issue in which the Mayor publicly stated it was not City Hall’s responsibility to inform the public about this issue. So much for transparency and accountability from this Mayor! So council fooled the public with a trick question they had never seen and didn’t understand into voting for an election system not used in any large city in the country but which was favoured by the politicians in preserving their lifetime seats.

Unfortunately, most voters are not so engaged, interested, or knowledgeable, and many who vote do so only out of a feeling of democratic responsibility. The public memory is short, and so voters have to be constantly barraged from all directions and with a unified message from all new candidates about the mess, the entitlements, the lack of transparency and accountability, and the giant mistakes and wastage of tax monies of the present bunch.

Without this message, which is the message the public has to hear to give them reason to kick out the present crew, I guarantee that there will be few new members of council….that is the history of the general vote in Oshawa. Out of seven general vote councils prior to 1985 counting for 107 total seats, not one incumbent lost their seat by the vote. All change on council over that time resulted from the death or resignation of the aging members.

In fact, in the upcoming “General Vote” Election, there is only one guaranteed new face for council. Two councillors have vacated their local seats, leaving two seats to fill from among those presently nominated, and one of those two new seats is likely to go to former local councillor Mike Nicholson, brother of Councillor Brian Nicholson. At the Regional Level, one councillor has vacated his seat which will likely go to former Mayor Nancy Diamond or Local Councillor Tito Dante Marimpietri. No other changes will take place unless all of the new candidates bring out the heavy artillery and start firing their big guns now. Just having good ideas will not cut it!

The second basic rule of Politics 101 is that you don’t get elected based on your knowledge or intelligence or ideas or education or platform or what you can contribute to the city.

One only has to look at Councillor Maryanne Sholdra for that. At the recent special council meeting having to do with the beaver cull, she arrived late as usual, and drew howls of well-deserved derisive laughter asking questions that had already been answered, and her “other planet” surprise that the beaver cull did not involve hundreds of beaver in the Goodman Pond rather than the well publicized 4 or 5 that even the children who were present knew. Despite her incompetence, she is likely to get re-elected with a “sign and ad campaign” in which she avoids all public appearances and minimizes any face-to-face contact with the public. That's why she didn't attend the recent forum for all City Council candidates. She knows in politics, as in “finders-keepers,” possession of a council seat is 95% of the law---and any public appearance by her simply exposes her incompetency to the public.

The “niceness” campaign plays right into the hands of the politicians in helping them to retain their seats by reducing public sentiment for change.

In fact, incumbent politicians will criticize any critique of Council mess-ups as destructive to the city, hoping, of course, to discourage opponents from exposing council and politician shortcomings. They know that its council actions themselves that result in political change, and they want to minimize voter knowledge of the mess-ups.

Falling for the “niceness” campaign is the new candidate’s and the city's worst enemy. It simply props up the incumbent dead wood on city council helping to insure their re-election. You have to give voters reason for voting for change. You have to attack their record and performance at every turn. Otherwise, you don’t have a hope in hell of winning. Niceness will simply not cut it!

Campbell’s Soup sells well because of the very recognizable name and red and white label and its long standing staple of a family’s diet going back to great-great-grandmother’s time---not because it is the best product around. Politics is not much different from this. The politician’s name is important….not that it’s good or great…but that it is recognized and familiar. Just as mother will pick Campbell’s off the shelf first without questioning whether it is best, many voters will pick the familiar name off the ballot without giving quality a thought. You only stop buying Campbell’s Soup when it’s left a bad taste in your mouth for some reason.

Same thing for politics! You only stop voting for a politician once he’s left a bad taste in your mouth. The job of new politicians is to remind voters of that “bad taste” left by the current bunch. Otherwise, voters will continue to pick up that “political can” of Campbell’s Soup never considering the quality of what is inside with the majority of voters never considering that there might be someone more deserving of their vote.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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