At the Lamorinda Club (Part 2)
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Update 1: Don't overlook this take on the event, which was posted in the comment section.
In my last piece I discussed some peripheral things about the Lamorinda Democratic Club meeting last night. In this piece I’m going to discuss how the candidates did.
I’ll start by giving a brief description of what I took away from the event. Then I’ll copy two responses I’ve received from others who attended the event. Then I’ll respond to some of what was said in the two responses.
So to begin, I think it’s clear that the performances of Jerry McNerney and Steve Thomas were the most surprising for those of us who have been following the race closely. Incidentally, Steve Filson very well might have come across the best, so “surprising” is not a code-word for success.
So why were McNerney’s and Thomas’ performances surprising?
Well McNerney’s was surprising because he seriously under-performed. I’ve never seen him so stilted, so boring, or so disconnected from the audience. This ought to have been a friendly crowd and he really managed to underwhelm people. Furthermore, since McNerney has been regularly criticized for his very real lack of speaking ability, his poor performance will be taken as emblematic of what he can do. I have seen him do much better, although he has never been stupendous. But the people who saw him for the first time last night will probably assume (reasonably) that he is consistently that bad. McNerney is not. And in addition, I think he’s better with question and answer sessions and one on one. But he is still going to have problems if he cannot pick up his game. And he probably created some problems by doing so poorly in front of such a large, and important, audience.
I mean, I think some people who might forgive poor speaking ability per se are going to come out of last night convinced that McNerney is not up to snuff. They are going to take his performance as emblematic of his competence. McNerney simply cannot allow people in the grassroots to write him off.
Thomas was surprising for almost the opposite reason. I think he gave the best speech at the event, although it was also pretty clear to me that he’s running in the wrong district. Frankly, I do think he is too far on the left for CD-11. That said, I told him that I’d be very happy to work with him after this election. He’d be a welcome addition to any Democratic club and he certainly has a lot of potential. I’m sure there is a lot of potential for him to take on more overt political roles in his union, and if he wanted to I’m sure he could build a base of support within a couple of years. But right now it’s unclear how he can mount a credible candidacy.
I have to say that I was impressed with the progress Filson has made. I mean, he began his speech with a comment about how important Democratic clubs are. It was light-years beyond his “Democratic clubs are not stakeholders in the Democratic Party” line. So he’s learning, which is good. His delivery was also pretty good, and I noticed that he brought all of his responses to the questions back to what he’d do in Congress. Still, I think there were two issues about Filson that prevented his performance from being a home run.
First, Filson really did not have strong responses to questions about Iraq or universal healthcare. He faced a dilemma in which he was to the right of his audience. But he responded by repeating rhetoric that was little more than political code words. If he could articulate a reason why he was opposed to universal healthcare, I think people might disagree but understand his position. Or if he has a better response on Iraq, I think people would disagree but understand. Instead, I found his responses to these particular issues fairly devoid of substance.
Second, Filson’s Mr. Hyde persona came out in two places during his performance. At one point McNerney had accidentally referred to the “War in Iran” instead of Iraq. It was not the only gaffe made, but it was pretty clear that he misspoke. Instead of staying silent on McNerney’s mistake, Filson used his intonation to emphasize the word “Iraq” and left a pause afterwards, thereby drawing further attention to McNerney’s mistake. I think it demonstrated a lack of graciousness that was beneath him. And then in his closing statement, Filson repeated some of the bad parts of the speech he gave to the South County Democratic Club. One of the two responses below goes into that in more detail, but I noticed this at the time and thought it came off badly.
So that has been my somewhat initial take on the race. Here are two responses I received from people who attended the meeting last night. I’m going to present them here and then respond to them somewhat obliquely afterwards.
Response One was published in the comment section here.
Jerry McNerney: I supported him last time and really appreciate his willingness to put his own $ into what most see as a lost cause. But here is something really grating about his presentation. He needs to lighten up a little work on his modulation. I just really wonder how he plays in Lodi or in the Tracy suburbs. Steve Thomas: I agree with most of what he said (he follows dkos and other blogs clearly) BUT I don't think he has much a chance in getting elected in rural San Joaquin County. He comes across as the 'smartest kid in the class' which people don't like. Steve Filson: I was prepared to not like him given the DCCC heavy handedness but he won me over. I like Steve a lot, he has a good plan for winning the district (note This is not Barbara Lee's district). So I switched sides from McNerney to Filson. Just my opinion, whatever we do we really need to WIN this district in Nov. I will support whoever the Democrats of the district select.
Response Two was posted as a comment here by Rick.
There were approximately 100 people at the Lamorinda Democratic Club event on Friday, February 17. The candidate forum went for about a hour a fifteen minutes. Each candidate got a 10 minute or so opening statement. Then the moderator read questions from the audience and each candidate had about a minute to respond. The forum then concluded with a two-minute closing statement from each candidate. My general observations of the forum are as follows:
Jerry McNerny: He looked tired and came across as lethargic. Got flustered at various points and made some obvious gaffes (e.g., saying that the U.S. invaded Iran instead of Iraq). His opening statement and responses to questions came across as disjointed and lacking a coherent message. McNerny also didn't inspire a lot of confidence in his motives when he stated that he jumped into the 2004 race because no one else was running against Pombo. Somewhat related, his campaign "scented" the room with dozens of McNerny signs and flyers posted on the walls. This looked tacky and amateurish and gave the appearance that the forum was rigged in his favor.
Steve Thomas: A natural public speaker (his voice has an uncanny resemblance to Harry Reid) who came across as sincere and genuine in his beliefs, but utterly unelectable. Some of his most pointed statements came awfully close to sounding like far-left conspiracy theories (i.e., at one pointed he stated that the neo-cons have drawn plans to invade all of the countries in the Middle East). Overall, he came across as an idealist who was out his element.
Steve Filson: It's apparent he’s been to candidate school. His statements were short, punchy, and easy to understand (i.e., sound bites), he made repeated use of personal stories of both himself and people he's met, and his stage presence was superior to the other three candidates. It was also apparent that he is more centrist than McNerny and Thomas, a fact he played down in response to several questions, most notably Iraq. His closing statement was terrible—he recycled that awful bit from the Morgan Hill Democratic Club speech that has been previously posted here about how he knows the district (e.g., "Do you know who the million dollar man is? [Explains Neil Diamond's appearance in Stockton]...You have to know the local issues if you're going run for Congress") For a guy who has the resources he has access to, surely someone must have told him that a). he is pointing out the obvious, and b). it comes across as condescending.
However, closing statement aside, Filson came across as the only one of the three who was ready for "prime time." He was the only candidate who avoided the self-deceiving trap of proposing to impeach the president (As an aside, it's ironic to see how many Democrats forget how wildly unpopular the Republican impeachment of Clinton was) and it's clear that his views are more in line with the mainstream of CA-11 than McNerny or Thomas. I went into the forum with an open mind and I am now squarely in the Filson camp now.
First all, I want to thank the authors of these responses. I welcome their reports back because they provide some way of knowing how others perceived the event. That said, neither of these responses came from people I had already knew were members of the Say No to Pombo community. So, unless I am mistaken, this is the first we’ve heard from them. I hope that they will continue to provide feedback, especially on Filson since they are both supporting him. I think a continued conversation with them would be beneficial to the Say No to Pombo community, so I hope that they continue to comment.
But I do have to say that I do not agree with some of their observations, or some of what I take to be the premises behind their conclusions. For example, let’s suppose that Steve Filson is really in a position to do better in the district than Jerry McNerney. What kind of evidence would you expect to see now that would show that Filson is destined to do better? You might think that Steve Filson would be raising more money than McNerney from within the district. But Filson is not. And Filson is not even raising more money in the conservative San Joaquin County. Filson is also not raising money from more donors in the district. And Filson has only now received his first endorsement from any organization in the district (the CCC-CLC), while McNerney has the endorsement of more Labor organizations than Filson and the formal endorsement of a Democratic club in the district, something Filson lacks.
Now my point is not that Filson is necessarily in a worse position than McNerney. Filson has more money, which will allow him to do more. And Filson is becoming a better speaker and communicator while McNerney is struggling to achieve sufficiency in those areas. But I still think it’s important to ask in pragmatic terms what it means that Filson is in a better position to win in the district.
One thing I think some people might not be appreciating to the same degree I do (for good or ill) is that personality only goes so far. One of McNerney’s advantages over Filson is that McNerney has surrogates who are well-established in their respective communities. Jerry McNerney does not convince everyone to vote for him. He can have his supporters work to convince members of their communities on his behalf.
So for example, in isolation I’m sure that McNerney did come across badly to some people last night. But in the context of the club, I doubt that any of the organizers who were there changed their mind about Filson or McNerney. And there is still a lot of time for people who are loyal to McNerney to essentially ride herd and bring people back into the fold so to speak. I don’t mean that in any coercive way mind you. I just mean that the social context is such that people who liked what Filson said last night and disliked what McNerney said are not lost causes for McNerney or definite votes for Filson. And so people should not underestimate the power of these informal structures of respect and friendship.
Now you take that one step further and you realize that there is tremendous power in a good ground game that relies on person-to-person interactions. A neighborhood has the same type of informal social networks that a club has. And they can be exploited through precinct captain programs and other similar activities.
Jerry McNerney’s supporters have always said that he will win the primary by out-organizing Filson. If McNerney does not sufficiently improve his public speeches, maybe he will not be able to recruit enough people to his cause, or motivate them to do what they need to do. But between today and a week from today, there are going to be dozens of people working for Jerry McNerney in one community or another. And collectively, what they do will have more impact and reach more people than last night’s speech.
I know a lot of people may disagree with me. That’s fine. But I really want to make clear that I view this race from an organizational and functional level. It’s how I approach politics and why I am so involved with the grassroots. And so although I think McNerney performed very far below what he both could and should have done, I also think that it counts more as a missed opportunity than an absolute setback.
Obviously, enough of these missed opportunities will really stall McNerney’s campaign. The next chance to change this dynamic is the Hayward Demos meeting next Friday. McNerney, Filson, and Charlie Brown (who is running against John Doolittle in CA-04) will be speaking.
Anyhow, others should feel free to post their perceptions of the Lamorinda event in the comments section. I’m packing for LA and flying down there tonight, so I most likely won’t be able to respond until late this evening.