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The coronavirus and impact of our attempts to slow its spread have changed local political campaigns in every way.
It’s hard to imagine it, but somehow the San Diego region grappling with an unprecedented public health and economic shock over the novel coronavirus will nonetheless have to conduct an election cycle in a few months.
What was the focus of the San Diego political world less than a month ago is now an afterthought.
Yet on a number of levels, the election we’re about to have will bear little resemblance to the one we imagined having at the start of 2020.
Time for a new message: In the months ahead, every political race in town will come down to voters deciding which candidate is best suited to solve the dire crisis facing the city of San Diego and the broader region.
Agency budgets are being ravaged just as service needs skyrocket. Some are much better prepared than others – cities, for example, are much more dependent on sales and tourism taxes than the county.
Topics that have always played a role in local politics, but which don’t usually carry the day, have just become central. Who will best protect small businesses from shuttering, or provide a path to reopening for those that already have? How can a local city, or the county, ensure residents have access to health care, or that workers are guaranteed paid sick leave? What service levels can a government maintain when projected budget deficits become immediate shortfalls overnight?
As recently as Election Night, this cycle was taking place in the middle of the longest economic expansion in the country’s history. Just a few weeks later, it’s a different world.
In that new world, will anyone care with which development-focused acronym (Remember YIMBY vs. NIMBY???) mayoral candidates choose to associate themselves?
Candidates with different backgrounds will nonetheless be able to make the case that they’re best positioned to deal with the new world. But it’s hard to believe any of them could simply roll out the same message they had settled on before anyone knew what the coronavirus was.
Time for a new campaign: But it isn’t just what candidates say that will obviously need to change. How they reach would-be voters just underwent a radical change as well.
Think about your standard, get-out-the-vote operation, where volunteers and candidates gamely go door to door to high-propensity voters to shake their hands, give them a flyer outlining their positions and ask for their vote. Can you even imagine that sort of personal interaction taking place on a regionwide scale just a few months after we were mandated not to associate with our closest friends and family?
How do campaigns fundraise, if the sorts of boozy affairs in wealthy donors’ backyards for a few dozen would-be contributors can’t go forward? Remember coffees?
It’s not an unsolvable problem. But it’s certainly a big change from the way things have always worked.
Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla became maybe the most visible San Diegan to test positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.
Contemplating the number of people with whom he had interacted in the two weeks preceding his diagnosis – both at Chula Vista Council meetings, on Election Night, at other public affairs and in his role as chair of the California Coastal Commission – made it clear that the virus had already spread far beyond the number of confirmed tests we were hearing. Padilla also flew home from a Coastal Commission meeting last Friday, after he was already demonstrating symptoms.
But if his diagnosis showed the virus was everywhere, the mid-week news that he had been hospitalized and hooked up to a ventilator demonstrated just how serious the virus is.
“My body is fighting like hell to battle this thing,” he told us on Monday.
That was before he began struggling to breathe, causing him to seek additional care, according to a statement released by Ashleigh Padilla, his daughter.
We talked about Padilla and tried to digest these overwhelming days in this week’s podcast.
From Scott: We live our lives in stories. It’s the story we tell ourselves. It’s the story we tell others. It’s the story we hear and follow about what’s happening in the world.
In moments like this, the public story is particularly acute. The story abruptly stops being a background discussion you can pay attention to if you want. It shifts to becoming intensely relevant to everybody’s lives and livelihoods. The story becomes everything. And so you always, in moments like this, see people arise who help us understand the story we are in right now. What part of it are we in? What is the next chapter? Who is the villain? What is the conflict and when will it be resolved?
They weave what’s happening into your life so you want to go through the story with them.
On the national level, for example, we have met Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He has been effective at explaining what’s going on and why. On the other hand, President Donald Trump has not.
There are others who arise who make clear decisions about what’s going to happen and then they explain them and lay out other tactics. They give guidance and direction and to the extent people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they can be compelling. You can want to follow them.
These are the types of leaders I have noticed. They are the storytellers and the generals. Great leaders have to do both well but they usually have a strength on one side.
It must be very awkward to be a candidate at a time like this. You want to respect, for the good of all, the person currently in charge. But you also want to be seen. You don’t want your opponent — who may be the person in charge! — to demonstrate clearly they are better suited for this than you.
Neither mayoral candidate has demonstrated much interest in standing out either as a storyteller or potential general. Among other candidates, a general wash-your-hands style of guidance giving has caught on.
So this is a slight nudge: People want to know why things are happening and where we are going and why. Candidates can help with that. They can offer constructive alternatives. People want you to demonstrate what kind of decisions you would make were you put on the spot the way current leaders are.
This isn’t the time to be shy. People can tune you out if they want. But they have a lot of time on their hands right now and trust me, they are really into this story.
How not to do it: This is a mindbending column — not in a necessarily good way. It’s not the fault of the writer, the U-T’s Michael Smolens. It was a good piece. It just felt like a maze of passive aggressive between-the-lines attacks. Is County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar talking about Supervisor Nathan Fletcher here? No? Does Darrell Issa think this is all a hoax?
The whole thing is has an intense “who-is-she-or-he-really-talking-about-here?” quality.
Anyway, this is not the time to be subtle and cryptic. If you have something to say, let’s do it. Conflict can be fine and helpful as long as it starts from a place of basic respect.
This week, Ammar Campa Najjar who is running against Darrell Issa for the 50th Congressional District, highlighted a questionable statement Issa had included in a fundraising mailer. Issa wrote: “Make no mistake, the left is manufacturing crisis after crisis, in an attempt to whip the American people into a frenzy. From wildfires to sea level rise and even the outbreak of viruses, we’ve lived through all these disasters before.”
We asked Issa’s campaign to explain what that meant and never heard back. The U-T’s Charles T. Clark did, though. Issa told him that he didn’t actually say “coronavirus.” So he was just talking about, like, random viruses. Not the one that has changed everything about our lives.
He later tweeted his own concern about this particular virus — the one he was definitely not talking about before.
It seems like a 50 years ago that we put up the Great Voice of San Diego Primary Elections Contest. But we’re finally ready to determine the winners. Six (6!) people won this round. They each missed three of the questions.
Here were the questions and the right answers.
The six winners:
They all win lunch with us but since we can’t eat lunch anymore with people, tough luck for them!
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