Friday, November 18, 2005

Professor Margee Ensign

As you probably know if you read this blog, Margee Ensign spoke at the Diablo Valley College Young Democrats meeting last night. Both of my co-authors and I were able to attend. At the end of this entry, I will discuss some information I picked up at the event that is more about the state of the race than Ensign herself. But first, let me detail my impressions of Margee Ensign and what she said.

To begin, let me simply say that I was more impressed with Ensign the person than with Ensign the politician. Listening to her speak felt more like attending an academic lecture (albeit one conducted by an engaging professor) than a political speech. This impression was heightened by the fact that her speech was accompanied by a fact-filled Power Point presentation.

I think the stylistic point is important because there’s an important difference between presenting an intellectual argument and an evocative emotional argument. For me, the entire substance of what she said was presented on an overly intellectual level. And this has the effect of making her argument seem much more abstract than it should have been.

In terms of content, she spent the majority of her time speaking about Iraq, economics, education, healthcare, and the environment. She said the things that I think most people would expect her to say. I took notes, but my notes mostly contain a laundry list of facts and figures, without many things that jump out at me. I think that she spoke most eloquently about education, which is unsurprising given her profession as an educator. Still, I found little new in the thematic points that she hit during the speech itself.

In the question and answer session after the speech, however, she did surprise me by disclaiming any strong view on troop withdrawal from Iraq. She said that she had opposed going into Iraq but is unsure what the best strategy is now that we’re there. So rather than wrapping herself in the anti-war flag as Filson suggested she might, Ensign seemed to take a rather moderate and cautious approach to the situation there.

Also, there was one big thematic problem I saw with Ensign’s speech, which was that she consistently chose San Joaquin County, Stockton, and the Central Valley as adequate descriptors of her community. This was tremendously problematic for me because it left out half of the district. Remember, the district is ridiculously gerrymandered. The majority of people at the dinner (at least as far as I could tell) came from Alameda and Contra Costa counties. For example, the San Ramon Democratic Club, the same club I attended to hear Steve Filson’s speech, had a significant number of members at last night’s speech. Yet you wouldn’t know they lived in the district if you just listened to Ensign. I made a comment about this in the question and answer session and she professed to be just now learning about the district, which I found somewhat inadequate as a response.

This dovetails with another interesting aspect about Ensign’s candidacy. She seems to be tippy-toeing into the race. She did not announce her candidacy last night, but rather the formation of an exploratory committee. In a Tracy Press article about last night’s speech, Nick Juliano provides a bit of relevant background when writes, “If she decides to jump in, Ensign would have to relinquish her position as a dean at Pacific and become a regular faculty member. Forming an exploratory committee allows Ensign to campaign and raise money while keeping her position at the school. She wouldn’t have to formally declare her candidacy until March.” Still, for all of her poise in her speech and in her responses to questions, Ensign came across as rather self-effacing and unsure of herself. She set a goal of raising $100,000 by the end of the year but seemed to leave open whether she thought she could meet that goal or not.

All of this would be fine if it was happening two or three months ago. But it struck me as odd that at this stage in the game she would come to Contra Costa County and have nothing to say about what she can do for the voters there. I thought it weird that she would seem so skeptical about her own chances. She even said she was still investigating whether there was any merit to the charges about Pombo’s ethical lapses.

At the end of the night I felt like I was not left with an argument for why someone should vote for her. I had a more detailed understanding of the problems in the district and I had an appreciation for her base level of policy competence. But I did not feel like she really connected the dots between why someone who doesn’t like Pombo should vote for her over her opponents. She was more dynamic than McNerney and more substantive than Filson, but at the same time she failed to convey Filson’s self-assurance or McNerney’s backbone. She was certainly more policy-oriented than either, and probably has more managerial competence than both put together. Still, I left wishing that we could have a Margee McFilson running in this race.

The one doubtlessly bright spot for Ensign is that she clearly has a lot of grassroots support and energy, at least from certain quarters. I doubt that her grassroots support currently rivals McNerney’s, but she certainly has some potential there. Owing more to this potential than anything I saw last night, I still think she presents a strong, credible challenge to the other two candidates.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, last night I also found out some interesting tidbits about the race itself. I’m posting them here for you to chew on.

  • A woman from the Contra Costa County Democratic Central Committee told me that she had heard that someone else, a hitherto unknown man from Danville, has just pulled papers for this race. She gave me a name but I need to check out the information anyway, so let’s leave it now as unsubstantiated rumor. The more interesting tidbit is that she has the impression that we might see a couple more challengers in the Democratic primary because “people are smelling blood in the water.” That said, unless a new challenger either is wealthy enough to fund a potentially million dollar race or has some sort of prominent community standing (ahem Machado), I cannot see him or her doing well.

  • It came out in Ensign’s speech that Scott Chacon has been helping her with her website, which will be launched soon. I assume this means that Chacon has given up his somewhat quixotic attempt to run against Pombo, but I was unable to speak with him about this at the event last night. Still, I have always thought that Chacon’s understanding of technology would be an invaluable asset to a more credible challenger. If Ensign has Chacon’s full backing, it represents an auspicious start to her campaign.
  • Ensign also mentioned that she has spoken with the leaders of MoveOn who have told her that MoveOn will help register voters in the district if she proves that she’s a viable candidate. First, I’m unclear why she associated herself with MoveOn, which probably does not have the best reputation among the moderates she needs to court, when they have not committed to do anything. It’s just a gimme to Pombo and his ilk. But more than anything, what she said made me irritated by MoveOn. MoveOn has seventy zillion reasons to register voters in CA-11, and they ought to be committed to doing so regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination. I hope Ensign somehow made a mistake when she implied otherwise.


Blogger kid oakland said...

Excellent post and summary.

I like your analysis, Matt.

I agree about moveon, too. If anything, your "tippy toe" critique of more relevant to moveon.

What we need, on a national level, right a clear cut committment by progressive organizations to take on the 50-90 Congressional districts where Republicans are vulnerable in 2006. Ie. to say: we're committed to organizing people around this, and are committing resources now to put pressure on GOP incumbants.

That would help generate interest and energy from good candidates on our side...and really put the heat on Reps like Pombo.

"If" and "maybe" isn't how we take back the House. There has to be a movement and a general sense that the Dems are on the march.

4:36 PM, November 18, 2005  
Anonymous Joy Montgomery said...

You called it right when you said McNerney had grassroots support and backbone. When no one else thought Pombo was vulnerable, McNerney ran one of the most successful challenges in the country with just that, grassroots support and backbone. Imagine what he can do to Pombo with your help!

4:55 PM, November 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why does margee need an explority campaign now? are you in or are you out? we got things to do lady!! while you are thinking we are "doing". my vote is still between filson and mcnerney. a person that cant make up their mind is a person who gets left at the end of the line.

7:32 PM, November 18, 2005  
Blogger babaloo said...

I think you summed up the evening perfectly. I'm left speechless! ;-)

7:37 PM, November 18, 2005  
Blogger VPO said...

I had high hopes for Margee, and I can't say they were entirely dashed, but they also were not elevated by last night's performance. The "academic" label is quite accurate. I don't know if I would criticize the tip-toeing so much. There is a process to these things, and yes, she maybe should have started earlier, but I think she wants to make sure there is support money behind her before jumping in and completely disrupting her life. This sounds reasonable.

As explained to me, this committee can take funds and build up its cash. Then, if the candidate decides to run, it becomes her campaign stash. If not, the $$ goes back to the donors. So it is a safe move, and I think okay at this point. She can still campaign and build alliances, etc.

However, the other criticisms made by Matt in his blog echo my own. Ditch the Powerpoint presentation, this is not a classroom lecture. Get more emotion into it. Talk specifics about what you are going to do about the poverty and bad air. Her response on the Iraqi War and on the Pombo ethics were weak. She has to be up on this stuff and answer vigorously, not vaguely.

7:49 PM, November 18, 2005  
Blogger jurassicpork said...

I lambatsed Pombo in my last Assclowns of the Week. I cannot believe that that assclown is trying to sell off our national parks and to drill for oil on them.

12:20 PM, November 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It looks like the bar has been set higher for Ensign than for the other candidates…which should be fine.

You are right the substance of her speech was presented on an intellectual level. She is no George Bush! In the future she will need to lose the power point. That said, what I got out of the event is that she had an excellent grasp of the issues she addressed. And she addressed a wider range of issues than I have seen the other candidates even touch on.

In regards to her ”tip-toeing” into the race, my understanding is that as a tactical matter candidates often start their campaigns with exploratory committees. Still there does appear to be this perception that she is just testing the waters. It seems important for her to be more emphatic that she is RUNNING FOR CONGRESS.

I think that if she hires a campaign manager and develops a deeper strategy for winning the race, she will be a formidable candidate…one with strong convictions. Something I am not sure I have seen in the other candidates.

5:01 PM, November 19, 2005  
Blogger Matt said...


I think I largely agree with what you've said. So keep that in mind when you read the following.

That said, I really did not mean to set the bar too high, and I think at least some people share my perceptions. Certainly, I tried to be fair.

Furthermore, my problem with Ensign's presentation was not that it demonstrated that she was intelligent or an intellectual. The real problem for me was that it was intellectualized, which is to say, somewhat abstract. She does not need to be a firebrand, but she does need to make a more concrete argument that connects the dots better. Right now I feel like I am left without an argument for electing her. I can think of reasons why one might vote for her, but I did not hear her articulate something compelling and concrete.

Lastly, I want to emphatically disagree with the implication of your last sentence. I truly believe that if McNerney did not have strong convictions he would not be running, period.

Furthermore, I do not want to suggest that I think that Steve Filson lacks convictions. My problem with Filson, such as it is, stems from my disagreement with some of his convictions (esp. about what the Democratic Party ought to be) coupled with his strategic decision to run on "electability." That, plus his lack of demonstrated support within the district, means that I question whether Filson can beat Pombo. But none of this should be construed to suggest that he has no strong, core beliefs that motivate him.

Maybe both Filson and McNerney have failed to demonstrate to you their strong convictions. I'm not so sure they are lacking in this respect.

5:55 PM, November 19, 2005  
Anonymous Hilary said...

Hi Matt,
I mostly agree with your summary of Margee Ensign's presentation. As someone who likes fact filled presentations with lots of charts and statistics on the screen, I enjoyed her presentation. However, didn't get the "I must help this woman get elected buzz" I was hoping for. I sure wish I could take a course from her, though.

I was very disappointed with her answer to the question of who she was looking forward to working with in Congress should she get elected. She answered that with the same "I have a lot to learn" approach she brought to a several other questions. I think that it's fine to have to think about her positions on specific issues before she mouths off, but I was perplexed that she had not vision of herself as acting in Congress.

I think that someone who wants to make a difference in Congress should have some sense of how Congress works - and know who her allies and opponents will be. My understanding is that ultimately legislative work boils to down to proposing bills, supporting bills, and opposing bills. And in a body with 435 members, that means working well with others.

At this stage in the game, she should have a clearer picture of herself as a legislator than her answer to that question indicated. She loves her current job and has a reputation of being good at it. We don't need to fill vacancies where thoughtful, progressive people are already contributing to good changes. We need to get folks elected who will hit the congressional ground running.

6:59 PM, November 20, 2005  

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