Elections are largely about the narratives candidates tell according to Stephen Routh, professor and chair of the Politics Department at California State University, Stanislaus.
“It’s like selling Coca-Cola,” he quipped.
Between posting signs, sending mailers, and interfacing with voters, generating a positive image as a candidate is paramount to a successful election and local elections tend to be more tepid compared with national races where smear campaigns are not uncommon. However, with only two candidates running for mayor in Turlock, this year’s race is heating up in the final two weeks.
Households across town received a mailer in recent weeks paid for by the North Valley Labor Federation promoting Mike Brem as a more qualified candidate for mayor than Gary Soiseth based on things such as business experience and community service.
“I had nothing to do with the mailer. It was a third party advocacy group and they can do whatever they want, but I did not play a role,” said Brem. “I don’t engage in negativity and to be honest I’m pretty old school. I’m more focused on wearing out shoes walking precincts and talking with people.”
Brem noted that he didn’t necessarily find the mailer to be negative and characterized the tone of the race as overall positive since “an election will be competitive no matter the number of candidates if you have good, qualified candidates.”
According to Routh, negative campaigning is employed at various levels of government for one reason: it’s effective.
“Negative campaigning turns voters off, but it works,” explained Routh.
While candidates on the receiving end of negative comments cannot control what is said about them Routh also noted that it is imperative to address the claim in a timely fashion.
“In campaign elections the people that take the high road and do not address the accusations are essentially tying one arm behind their back,” said Routh. “Campaigns are about the narrative and who can write it.”
After the North Valley Labor Federation’s mailer was sent out Soiseth addressed each individual claim on his Facebook page. According to former mayor and public supporter of Soiseth Curt Andre, the “new frontier of social media” has changed the way in which candidates communicate with voters.
“It’s a mixed blessing because everything comes in real time and can possibly be harsher,” said Andre who was also the recipient of negative campaigning efforts during the 1990 election.
While Andre and Tom Howard proved the front runners during the 1990 election there were two more candidates to dilute the competition unlike the current election.
Andre said that he never engaged in negative campaign tactics during the elections because he “didn’t want to sell out his principles or his soul.” He also noted that he does not think negative campaigning “does well in local communities.”
“Over time it creates cynicism in communities and we should avoid that locally and instead focus on issues,” said Andre.
“A more positive way for candidates to be recognized and appreciated for positive qualities is to focus on issues more than the campaign itself,” echoed Routh.
While Soiseth admitted he was surprised to see the North Valley Labor Federation’s mailer he also stated that he is committed to remaining vigilant with his declaration of a 100 percent positive campaign from the beginning.
“I’d rather lose with a positive campaign than win with a negative one,” said Soiseth.
The competition between the two candidates is further emphasized by the fact that partisanship does not play a formal role in local elections in turn forcing the candidates to tell their story without a political party platform on which to rely. The mayoral candidates have been working tirelessly in recent weeks to express their own narrative in the community by attending local events, walking precincts, and promoting their vision online. While both candidates hope to govern Turlock in a positive direction come November, current Mayor John Lazar noted that ultimately the “position belongs to the citizens of Turlock and embodies the community spirit.”
“This position in my view is kind of sacred and should not be dragged into a partisanship brawl. It should be held with respect,” said Lazar who is publicly supporting Brem.
While Routh noted that pronounced partisanship is typically a “huge cue” for voters and often allows those equivocating to cast their vote with a sense of confidence towards party allegiance, the lack of political parties at the local level makes the election more issue-centric and keeps the focus local.
“For me, local issues are not Republican or Democrat. They are common sense issues,” said Soiseth.
“The issues are the issues and you don’t need to get into the political stuff to find a solution,” said Brem.
The lack of party politics does not take away from the fact that each candidate is charged with two quests during election season: selling the public on their ability to serve while also taking a stance on current issues, such as the potential half-cent road tax to repair Turlock roads and the ongoing water crisis plaguing the community and state at large. While the mayoral candidates may not agree on all issues neither does the entire council or other local leaders and becoming comfortable with the idea of conflict is part of the job description said both Lazar and Andre.
“The essence of democracy is the art of compromise,” said Routh. “Our entire system is predicated on it.”
As Lazar prepares to surrender his mayoral seat to whomever the next mayor will be he noted that after he initially won the election he aimed to incorporate those who opposed him into the fold for the greater good of the local government and the community at large.
“You’re not going to make it right until you make it right with those who have opposed you,” said Lazar. “It leads to a broken community.”
Andre echoed a similar sentiment by placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of the role of mayor, something he honed during his 17-year tenure.
“Compromise is a good word but what I’d use is collaborative because it isn’t about winning or losing on an issue,” said Andre. “It’s about taking stories that are told significantly differently by people who equally care for Turlock.”