Spending a few days in California just before the early June primaries can persuade almost anyone that the only factor that counts in that state is the television set. Candidates for Governor had little time for daily campaigning because they had to spend so much time day after day on the telephone raising money or going to fund-raising events. The money, of course, overwhelmingly went to buying hundreds of 30 second campaign ads on television.
Gone by the wayside are the actual records of the candidates, intelligent debates and grass roots organizing that involves thousands of citizens in precinct after precinct. What counts is who can make the most emotional and memorable television spot. One commentator noted that what also counted in the Governor’s race was who could wear red because of that color’s favorable impact on television viewers. Former San Francisco Mayor, Dianne Feinstein won that race because unlike her male opponent, condemned to blue or grey suits, she wore red suits and, voila’, won the primary election as the Democratic nominee for Governor.
Feinstein used other techniques, of course. She unfurled one of the dirtiest television ads this side of Richard Nixon in the last five days of the campaign as her opponent, the Attorney General, John Van de Kamp, pulled almost even in the polls. With over a million dollars in purchasing power, she plastered television and radio with a gruesome ad charging him with being soft on crime in a case involving the so-called Hilltop Strangler. Van de Kamp, by this time in his career, wearying of this old assault, responded that he had made a mistake but that his criminal prosecution record was second to none with hundreds of cases to prove it. Nonetheless, Feinstein, who Van de Kamp charged had never prosecuted a parking ticket, zoomed 10 points ahead of her competitor.
Then there were the numerous (15 of them) initiatives on the ballot. Two of them, Prop 118 and Prop 119, would have led to the redrawing of the reapportionment map of California in the image of the large corporations who were bankrolling these measures with the Republican Party. Both initiatives lost. Prop 112 was a touted ethics initiative that would limit certain outside income for state legislators and let an unaccountable commission set their salaries. Insiders, including the state legislators who avidly supported this measure, knew that higher salaries were on the way and that they would be off the hook on this sensitive matter with the voters. There was no organized opposition to Prop 112 and it won. Stay tuned on this one, though, when the voters realize what it was they voted for !
The other big electoral battle was the first race for the election of Insurance Commissioner. Making this an elective post was one of the provisions of Prop 103 which won over far better funded pro-insurance industry initiatives in November 1988.
Four major candidates split the vote and the winner, with a mere 35% of the Democratic primary vote was state senator John Garamendi. His chief accomplishment regarding insurance was to have voted with the insurance lobby on just about every legislation on the topic in his sixteen year career and turn his back on pro-consumer bills and pro-consumer initiatives trying to counter the abuses of the industry.
Yet what did the voters in California see on television? There was John Garamendi saying he had stood up to big corporations and that he was going to strongly enforce Prop 103-a measure he was opposed to and ridiculing up until only a few months ago-off television. Attempts to correct his record by opponents and critics could not match his $1.5 million campaign budget and the quiet support of the insurance lobby and business-as-usual politicians.
It takes a herculean effort to overcome the television blitz, but, as the victory of Prop 103, outspent 100 to 1 by the insurance lobby, demonstrates, it can be done. But only if there is a door-to-door grassroots effort and, unfortunately, only if the media pays attention in a news, feature and editorial manner, to the contest and its fundamental issues.
During the race for the primary elections, the insurance commissioners race was very under-reported by the media which left television slogans, imagery and deceptions dominating the campaign.
That’s the lesson, folks. Democracy is a sweat; it takes voter effort and mobilization off the television screen. And like a good sweat, it feels a lot better afterward than the rancid memory of phony, manipulative television campaign spots.