Saturday, November 10, 2007

Election aftermath

Editor's Note: Due to work deadlines and other projects, I'm getting to this a little late. But I still think there are some things worth writing about concerning the 2007 Concord municipal elections. So here it is. Consider this a Sunday newspaper aftermath column ... on Saturday.

Tuesday elections in Concord may have marked a new era in municipal politics both in the way candidates spent money and the level of turnout needed to win elected office. At the same time, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the ability for change in the future, is now more prevalent than ever, based on the number of new faces appearing on the city's political scene.
Municipal elections, for the most part, have become pretty sleepy affairs here, especially when compared to the past. Gone are the rough and tumble days when this was a lunch bucket city of Reagan Democrats who would fight and elbow their way around Rockefeller Republicans to get things done. Lawyers, people connected to state employment, a handful of "creative economy" types and commuters to jobs in the southern part of the state [and Massachusetts], have become the mainstays of the city's populace.
Concord, and its neighborhoods, have become a bit more transient too, with apartments housing more short term residents [i.e. non-voters] than ever before [a little less than 28,000 registered voters in a city of more than 43,000 ... and growing]. There is more diversity here, especially when looking at economics: From clerks in low wage jobs, single parents trying to make ends meet without cars, and others, like those attending small colleges like the Franklin Pierce Law Center. The latter, of course, noticeably changing the makeup of Wards 4 and 5 in a big way.
Gone are the days when the local newspaper, the Concord Monitor, had an office downtown and delivered huge newspapers in the afternoon. Down to a circulation of less than 9,000, according to the 2005 bureau statistics, it still remains the city's strongest news source but it isn't the same as it used to be. Gone are the days when the local radio station, WKXL, was live most of the time, played music, and had a news staff chasing fires, car accidents and stories around the city. The current owner has tried to replicate the old days but it is not quite the same as it was in the past. There is some television news. WMUR-TV, Channel 9, is still the strongest for-profit television station in the state and still covers Concord with serious political news and whenever there is a big crime story. There have been attempts to gain some traction with new TV signals, but both efforts failed: Concord's Channel 21 runs syndicated cable and Derry's 50 has refocused its direction on Massachusetts.
These changes in demographics and media have changed the way the city views things in a big way. As well, as we have all seen in society, it is getting harder and harder to communicate and stay in touch with the people around you even as technology is making communication easier. We often don't know our neighbors [Or, we do, and we don't want to know them, another topic entirely].
Of course, this isn't an anomaly to Concord. It is happening everywhere in America. But it is affecting the city's electoral process and how the city does business. Right now, there is a power vacuum and a small amount of people seem to have the most influence in Concord's strong city manager, strong school superintendent system. This might change when the few new voices are added to the council and school board in the wake of Tuesday's elections. But, at the same time, it probably won't change.

Money becomes an issue
The amount of money spent clearly played a small role in the outcome of at least the city side of the election. But, in some ways, name recognition seems to have played a bigger role in getting elected in 2007.

In the mayor's race, a lot of money was raised and spent, big money at least by Concord's standards. Even outgoing Mayor Mike Donovan, in a Monitor article, worried that all the money being thrown around would scare ordinary people away from running for the position. While his point is a good one, the reality is that ordinary folks have limited opportunities to run and win any of these seats as it is now, with or without the money. Ordinary folks seem to have been scared away from the process long ago. The number of unchallenged seats each year comes close to proving that theory.
The latest campaign finance filings at the city clerk's office, filed on Oct. 30, show that Bouley raised more than $5,800 to Rogers' almost $4,800. Bouley spent less than $2,000 at this point in the race while Rogers had spent more than $4,200 [the final campaign filings are due to the clerk by Nov. 20, and that paperwork should yield some interesting figures].
Both Bouley and Rogers spent their money on standard campaign expenses - signs, printing, postage or direct mail, and in the case of Rogers, electronic phone calls to voters. Bouley also had newspaper ads in the Monitor. Both campaigns repeatedly mailed full-color postcards to voters, with Bouley targeting general households and Rogers addressing some of her mail directly to female voters. The municipal unions also bought a half page ad in the Monitor right before the election, to promote their endorsed slate [Two of their endorsed candidates, Rep. Steve Shurtleff, who ran at-large council, and Dick Patten in Ward 8, won. Two out of four ain't bad].
From the field, at least a few voters were annoyed by phone calls from Rogers. There was a rumor that Bouley, after hearing from some of those voters in the field, canceled a planned last minute electronic calling effort. We also heard from a few "good" voters who said they had not heard from the Rogers campaign, either by phone or mail. These voters were both male and female, leading one to speculate that Rogers' effort may not have been as complete as it needed to be [the results also lead to this conclusion].
"Good" voters, in the business, are voters who vote in every election possible. Campaigns target these voters with information because they are almost guaranteed to vote. If a campaign has even more resources, it then targets the not so good voters, by age, gender, neighborhood, or other category, in order to influence and prod them into getting out to vote. In the aftermath of an election, an analyst can speculate on what drove voters to the polls based on a campaign's GOTV effort and the issues raised in the race by candidates.
Interestingly, neither Bouley nor Rogers had very strong GOTV operations although both seemed organized enough for the kind of campaigns Concord is used to. While they had people at the polls holding signs, neither campaign seemed to be checking the turnout. A campaign with a really good field operation will call or go door-to-door to interview voters about their personal preferences before the election. This poll rates the voter on a scale of 1 to 4, "1" meaning they are voting with you while "4" means the voter is against your candidate. This information is marked on a voter's list and tabulated by hand in small races or by computer in larger races. Poll checkers are at the polls on Election Day marking the names of voters off the list as they go into the polls. The lists are then checked a number of times during the day to keep track of who has voted and who hasn't. Between noon and 3 p.m., phone calls are made to remind a candidate's 1s and 2s that they need to get out and vote [hence the name, GOTV, get out the vote]. A good field operation will know by 5 p.m. if they have won the election or not. Neither candidate seemed to have that on Election Day so they didn't really know what the results would be until they got the printouts at the clerk's office [a telephone survey poll did surface to some voters around the city but neither candidate publicly admitted to purchasing the poll. Some speculate that Bouley's lobbying partner, Mike Denehy, may have authorized the poll, but no one knows for sure].

In the at-large race, most of the candidates spent their own money to finance their races, according to campaign finance filings.
Shurtleff, who won one of the at-large seats, spent the most, more than $1,700. Incumbent Mark Coen, who won the other at-large seat, spent a little more than $300. Merwyn Bagan spent about $400. And Al "Tinker" Foy raised $100 in donations and spent more than $1,500 on his effort. Trisha Dionne, who initially ran at-large but then shifted gears to an unsuccessful write-in campaign in Ward 4, spent $50 before changing races. Stacey Catucci listed no expenditures before Oct. 30. Both Bagan and Foy filed their Nov. 20 forms early, so their financial information indicates a finalized tally.
The four "serious," for lack of a better term, at-large candidates all spent money on signs and some other form of printing, with Shurtleff and Foy sending out mass mailers, according to expense reports. Shurtleff seems to have targeted good voters, since a number of people who consider themselves "good" voters commented on receiving his postcard. Foy spent more than $1,300 on a mailer but it is unknown how he chose to target voters. Since Foy forwarded a more conservative platform than most of the other candidates, he may have targeted Republican or elderly voters or may have even just mailed to neighborhoods where people knew him, in the hope that he would bring them out to vote. Whatever the strategy, it did not work, since Foy came in fourth.
One could speculate that had Bagan spent money on a mass mailer, he might have pulled off a win. A little more than 400 votes separated him and second place finisher Coen, granted, a popular incumbent for all of his long-time work in the community. While Bagan did receive the endorsement of the municipal unions, he probably would have benefited from the push a mailer could have brought to his effort.

In the ward races, even though there was little competition, some candidates spent money.
Of the reports filed, Dionne spent the most - $310. Fred Keach, who ran unopposed for the Ward 10 seat, spent $180. Ward 2 Councilor Bill Stetson received $50 in donations and spent $28. Ward 7 Councilor Keith Nyhan spent $105, mostly on food for an event promoting Bouley's campaign. No other candidates reported expenses as of Oct. 30.
Interestingly, Dionne received 775 votes in her at-large race, 103 in Ward 4, and then another 49 votes as a write-in candidate [to incumbent Councilor Dick Lemieux's 399].
Financial data from the school board candidates was not readily available and from what some candidates have reported, the filing requirements are not as strict as the council side of the race. When that data is available, it will be posted.

Lost opportunities
Clearly, the lack of candidates for the ward races is a sad testament to the state of city politics. As noted by Donovan, with large amounts of money getting thrown around, it is impossible for ordinary folks to run a major citywide campaign.
But running on the ward level is an entirely different story. For a few hundred dollars, as shown by some of the candidates in ward races, a good campaign can be organized.
Imagine, if you will, if Dionne had always run for the Ward 4 seat instead of changing her mind in the middle of the at-large race. A registered "undeclared," meaning independent, with the backing of the municipal unions, she might have waged a better battle against Lemieux. Or, at the very least, she could have forced Lemieux to run a campaign on why he should be reelected, which is just as important a procedure. There are more than 1,200 registered independents in Ward 4 and Dionne could have tapped into those voters, as well as Democrats and Republicans, and waged a better campaign. She may not have won in the end. But the outreach and media coverage could have increased voter turnout in the ward to more than the 19 percent who did show up.
Look at Catucci, who realistically had no chance of winning against four better known candidates in the at-large race. She had no Web site, no literature, and no available form of communicating with voters [no available email and her phone number is unpublished and inaccessible to potential supporters]. But she elevated some interesting ideas during the campaign so much so that the Monitor editorial board suggested she consider staying active [the Monitor, as we have seen, does not throw gifts like that to people very often]. As a Republican from Ward 2, she could have challenged Stetson and run a competent campaign. There are more than 600 registered Republicans in Ward 2. Stetson garnered 268 votes in his race against the blanks. Do the math. There was [or is] potential there. Stetson, a former firefighter, would have probably received backing from the unions as he did in 2005 when he ran against two people for the open seat. But that does not mean that it would have been impossible to win against him. Some of the candidates backed by the municipal unions lost.
In fact, looking at the number of voters in each ward who blanked the incumbent - meaning the voters did not vote for the incumbent but left the ballot blank - there is built in ground to wage competitive races in the future. In half the city's wards, more than 20 percent of voters left the ballot blank: Ward 2 - 21 percent blanked the vote; Ward 3 - 20 percent; Ward 5 - 28 percent; Ward 6 - 22 percent; and Ward 10 - 25 percent.
While a high percentage of blanks does not guarantee a win for challengers, it does point to a potential base of voters who are unhappy. A challenger might be able to count on those votes for support. One has to wonder, for example, what would have happened if Foy spent $1,300 trying unseat Ward 7 Councilor Keith Nyhan. What if Bagan, a well-known figure in the city, ran against Ward 5's Rob Werner? Would their efforts have been more successful? Would the challengers have yielded higher turnout rates in those wards? Would the challengers have won?
Note the Ward 8 race between Patten and Ray LaCasse: 499 votes cast with only 17 blanks. When given choices, voters choose one of the candidates. At the same time, turnout in that ward was only 21.6 percent - one of the higher turnouts but not the highest. The South End's Ward 7 and Bouley's home ward, Ward 10, as well as Ward 3 and 5, had the highest turnout. All four had uncontested ward races.

An interesting potential case study
Flipping over to the school board side, one could really create an interesting case study from this race, if you could land the grant funding to do it.
Concord is in the process of potentially unprecedented change in the makeup of its elementary schools. Earlier in the year, school officials released a tentative plan to consolidate the city's eight elementary schools into five. A number of factors went into the plan's creation. Elementary school enrollment has dropped as fewer people in the city have children and when they do have them, they have fewer than previous families. A number of the schools, while historic, are in need of major structural repairs. With more schools, it is more difficult to share the department's resources. Many students, like the ones at Walker Elementary, are not getting the same education at newer, better-staffed schools, like Beaver Meadow Elementary.
After the release of the plan, the school department revealed that it had spent millions of dollars to purchase a number of private homes around Kimball Elementary at market rate - at a time when housing values are starting to plummet and eminent domain takings remain an option for the department if the plan moved forward. This piqued the interest of not only budget hawks and conservatives, but supporters of the smaller neighborhood schools, who all sensed the tentative plan was a done deal. Consolidating the elementary schools also became the biggest issue of the campaign.
Adding to all of this potential instability and change was the fact that three school board seats were up for reelection with only one candidate deciding to run for reelection. As the filing deadline opened, few candidates emerged to run for the three seats. A number of media outlets did stories about the lack of candidates and, as the filing period closed, eight candidates filed to run for the seat. One candidate, Tim Patoine, who is also a part-time school bus driver, dropped out because he might have to relinquish his job if elected [He remained on the ballot and received 521 votes].
Of the seven candidates left, most were against the consolidation plan. The four male candidates left in the race favored renovating the older schools; two of the three female candidates, Laura Bonk and Jennifer Patterson, were non-committal but leaning towards the consolidation plan. Incumbent Megan DeVorsey backed the consolidation plan.
Most of the candidates had some political experience in the city. Rosano, a Republican who has lived in the city for more than five decades, ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2006. Watrous, a 20-plus year resident, ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 7 city council in 2005. DeVorsey was the incumbent asking for another term. Jennifer Patterson, while not previously elected to any office, worked at the Attorney General's office for a number of years before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom. Ralph Willette and Eric Williams were relative unknowns. As was Bonk who, having just moved into town in July from Allenstown, ran unsuccessfully for state representative there in 2004.
It was clearly anyone's game. But a handful of activists and a newspaper editorial board may have influenced enough people to turn a certain way.

Was it really A Better Choice?
In the middle of the campaign, a small group of activists attempting to stop the elementary school consolidation plan launched an effort to have the buildings named to an endangered building list and later, actively backed a number of candidates.
But their efforts clearly backfired.
On Oct. 16, a group calling themselves "A Better Choice" [ABC] nominated the Dewey, Rumford, Kimball, Walker, Dame, Conant and Eastman elementary school buildings, as a group, to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance's "Seven to Save" list. The effort, activists were quoted as saying, was a hope that the consolidation plan would be reexamined.
Members of the group wrote letters to the editor in support of their cause and later, candidates they decided to endorse.
One of the members, Charlie Russell, an attorney and local Democratic activist, bought a $200 radio buy on WKXL. The ads, the only municipal ads bought for any of the races, aired on the Monday before the election and on Election Day. The ads ridiculed DeVorsey for supporting the elementary school consolidation plan and elevated Willette and Williams as supporters of neighborhood schools. Rosano and Watrous, two other neighborhood schools supporters, were not mentioned in the ad and were not approached by the group about getting support, according to sources.
The negative ad probably did not have much bearing on the race because few people actually listen to WKXL. According to Arbitron, the company which does biannual polling of radio listeners in the Lakes Region/Concord market [#169], on any given weekday, WKXL has around 600 to 700 potential listeners in the region - not the city. The station fell off the Top 30 12-plus Arbitrend survey - the generic survey given away for free on the Web - back in the Fall of 2004. Since that time, the station's listenership has plummeted. While the bulk of the station's listeners are 55 plus, probably good voters, and living in Concord, no one knows where they actually live unless you spend $4,800 on the data. While it is easy to assume that few people heard the ad, the actual number is a complete unknown.
However later, on Election Day, another name popped up on literature and homemade signs produced by ABC. No, it wasn't Rosano or Watrous. It was Patterson - a consolidation plan supporter. So, essentially, Russell and others added another name to the list of endorsed candidates who did not support their position. How foolish was that?
As it turned out, quite foolish: the three consolidation plan candidates won, with Patterson topping the ticket and DeVorsey, the incumbent targeted by Russell's ads, easily winning reelection. The third candidate to win was Bonk, the candidate no one knew. The closest candidate ABC had to actually winning was Watrous - the same candidate the group ignored - who lost by a meager 128 votes. If just a handful of Willette's and Williams' votes in each of the city's wards had gone to Watrous, there would be at least one vote on the board for a reexamination. Russell did not return an email request to discuss this issue.

The media's influence
Before the election, we took a short look at the media's influence in the municipal races and delved into the lack of coverage and what seemed like better coverage for Rogers in the mayoral race. As the results showed, the news side of the Monitor's operation was unable to help the doomed Rogers campaign [although they would probably reject the previous analysis suggesting that they were influential].
However, the editorial side, some of whom also work on the news side, not unlike other newspapers in the world, clearly had a definitive influence over at least one race, the race for school board.
The Monitor issued a number of endorsements in the week before the election, including on the city side, Bouley, Shurtleff and Coen, Lemieux; and on the school side, Bonk, DeVorsey, and Patterson, all of whom won. The Monitor abandoned their long time Town Crier contributor, Patten, and endorsed his opponent, Ray LaCasse. But Patten won easily.
However, the most surprising of all the endorsements was Bonk and it clearly made the difference. As was later noted in a post-election article, "School board gets 2 new faces," reporter Melanie Asmar wrote:
"Bonk ran a frugal campaign; she had a $50 budget and spent $42, mostly on printing fliers. The night before the election, she bought a piece of foam board and her only campaign sign, which was handmade."
In a world of modern and serious campaigns, how did a woman no one knew, who just moved to town a few months before, who knew very few people, who spent so little money, end up winning against better known, better financed, and more active candidates? You already know the answer to that one. The Monitor endorsement clearly buoyed Bonk into the board seat and there really is no other explanation for the shocking and surprising win.
Future candidates can learn from this but the message might not be the best one to hear: You really need to figure out a way to get the Monitor endorsement. It isn't a guaranteed win, but it clearly doesn't hurt. And, if you don't get it, well, you better really get out there and hustle or else you are not going to win.

So, what does this all mean?
It is hard to really grasp any definitive results from the election beyond the clear and easy answers: Bouley ran a very good race and people were turned off by his opponent; name recognition trumps money in council and school board races; the Monitor is still a viable news source and can still influence and sway hundreds of voters in the city to vote for candidates who might not be the best choices. Those are a few things.
But the larger and more important point is this: These are your elections. These are your candidates. We need to have voter participation as high as it can be in order to make sure that everyone has his say. As we all know, it's the local elections which are the important ones. It's the local elections which have the greatest affect on our lives.

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