Character Matters: Speeches from last night's meeting
The Contra Costa County Democratic Central Committee meeting and holiday party last night was not what I expected. First, I really had not expected much of a meeting. Silly me. But the meeting did give the elected officials and candidates who attended the ability to give short (for politicians at least) speeches to the crowd. Both Jerry McNerney and Steve Filson spoke, and I think their speeches provided the most important fodder for this piece. So I’m going to discuss the speeches somewhat before I discuss some of the interesting rumors I heard and the observations I made during the subsequent party. I will include those in the next post. (Update, the next post is up, here)
To set the stage a bit, you need to understand that the Co Co County Democratic Central Committee is the organizational level at which the Democratic Party grassroots meets Democratic elected officials and the Democratic Party establishment. The meeting last night was attended at various points by State Senators Liz Figueroa (SD10) and Jackie Speier (SD08), who are both running for Lt. Governor in 2006; State Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (AD11); Loni Hancock (AD14); the mayors of Richmond and San Pablo; and Joe Ovick, Contra Costa County Superintendent of Schools, who came up with the best anti-Pombo line of the night, saying (roughly) “I had a discussion with Representative Pombo, who is Chairman of the House Resources Committee, and I told him that he was constantly ignoring the needs of our most valuable resource—our children.” I think the number of politicians that showed up last night evidences the political power held by the members of the County Democratic Central Committee and the grassroots constituencies they represent.
I any event, after a thankfully brief agenda that included discussion of various bylaw amendments, the Chair of the DSCC called Liz Figueroa up to speak. She gave a good, positive speech. Then, since neither Jackie Speier nor Steve Filson had arrived, the Chair called upon Jerry McNerney to say a few words.
While McNerney was heading up to the podium, Liz Figueroa called out, out of the blue and somewhat casually, that she was endorsing Jerry. This took everyone by surprise, including, I think, McNerney himself. I guess Christmas does come early for some people.
McNerney’s speech was not fantastic, but it was a lot better than almost any speech I had seen or heard him give. I’d give it a solid B. He seemed relaxed and positive, and there was a twinkle in his eye, no doubt from his recent (vocal) endorsement by a popular State Senator. (For those who don’t know, Figueroa’s district includes Pleasanton, which is where McNerney lives along with about 30,000 other Democrats). That said, McNerney addressed his message to the “Republicans” and the “neo-Cons,” which I thought was a little misguided since he was speaking to such a quintessentially Democratic audience. But even where he faltered in style, what he said was still substantively fine. He got a lot of cheers and applause from the crowd and I think he did okay for what was really nothing more than a three minute schpiel.
I’m much, much more critical of the speech Steve Filson gave. He arrived sometime in the middle of McNerney’s speech, so he might not have understood exactly what was going on. Still, I think he should have understood his audience well enough to avoid some of the excesses that he engaged in.
As he began to speak, I noticed some odd mannerisms. He was pacing back and forth and literally twiddling his thumbs, which made it seem like he was giving off really bad vibes. So stylistically, I was turned off by how he was speaking. But I would not mention it if he had not said something that really bothered me and, from what I can tell, a number of others in the room.
Filson began by talking about how bad Richard Pombo is. So far so good. But then he started down a weird road saying (this is from memory, so it may not be exact), “I am the one who can beat Richard Pombo. My friends have told me that I am the one who can beat Pombo. Voters in the district have told me that I am the one who can beat Richard Pombo. I have had members of Congress tell me that I am the one who can beat Pombo.” I’m not sure the words on the screen quite do this justice. It came off as exceptionally arrogant. My thoughts at the time were: And no doubt Cesar the High Priest has told you that you’re the son of Jupiter, what’s your point? But again, I would not have mentioned anything here, had he not taken it one step further.
I forget exactly what he said, but his next rhetorical step was to talk about how it’s going to take a lot of money to defeat Pombo and how he (Filson) is the only one with the money. The jab against McNerney was blatant, and to my mind uncalled for. And frankly, in a room full of grassroots figures of sufficient stature that they should have been consulted before Filson was thrust upon the district by Washington, I’m doubt it made him any friends or won him any supporters. If anything, I think it exacerbated the feeling that Filson takes his real political gold—his fundraising numbers ought to be a strong argument for him after all—and turns it into political lead by the force of his personality.
Nobody else even hinted at taking pot-shots at their Democratic opponents that night. And frankly, Filson could have conveyed his strengths (assuming there was anyone in the room who was ignorant of the race, which was not likely), without sounding like he was attacking McNerney. The last thing people in the Democratic Party want is an ugly primary. But Filson seems content to make things uglier than they need to be. This bothers me, and I’m not the only one. In fact, I really think Filson is alienating people who ought to be his supporters.
And to be clear, the argument against what Filson said is not moralistic, it’s hard nosed in its own way. Recently I had a phone conversation with an Ensign supporter after it was clear that Ensign was bowing out of the race. The Ensign supporter told me that he agreed with Filson’s politics to a large degree, but could not see himself supporting Filson in the primary because “character matters.” He’s right, character does matter. And if Steve Filson cannot or will not elevate the discourse about the race beyond crude political calculus and stratagem, he’s not going to be half so electable as he claims to be.