Fear & Loathing, but Questionable Dynamic Foresight on the Petaluma Campaign Trail, 2018

Though we were unable to spend much time covering the 2018 Petaluma election campaign, we do feel obliged to touch upon it briefly before moving on to the 2020 electoral cycle already underway. It was, after all, the end of a significant era in Petaluma politics and culture, and the birth of an exciting new one. Though he took some time away from public service in 2007, retiring Mayor David Glass has represented Petaluma as mayor or city councilman since 2003. Absent some further political evolution on his part, it’s also the likely end of former city councilman Mike Harris’s political career representing a local right wing in decline.

We were reminded the next campaign had begun on New Year’s Eve, when Elizabeth Warren officially announced her campaign for the White House, inspiring a raucous outburst of noise around here from the locals excited about the senator from Massachusetts taking on the current occupant of the White House in the 2020 race.

Pawel Kuczynski http://www.pawelkuczynski.com

It was wonderful of the American people, and Petalumans in particular to turn out to vote in big numbers in the November election. Over 47% of those Americans eligible cast a vote, compared to 36% in 2014. The last time that many people voted in a midterm was 1966, a big deal activists, advocates and all those working for change should be proud of. It was also the first time in U.S. history over 100 million voted in a midterm.

My glee was immediately tempered when local activist and farmer Wayne Morgenthaler reminded me how peculiar it is to view a participation figure of less than half the voting population as ‘good’ in a nation which imagines itself the beacon of democracy. He was right to assign an asterisk to my enthusiasm, but there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the 2018 results, whether you’re looking at local, state or national results. At the very least those results served notice to President Donald J. Trump that the second half of this term will be considerably more challenging for him with the Democratic Party takeover of the House of Representatives.

At a televised press conference the day following the election, our master of reality tv promptly claimed victory and manufactured a brouhaha with CNN’s Jim Acosta to change the subject, deftly creating an alternative reality for his diehard supporters to embrace. Such is the genius of Trump TV that the corporate press obligingly played along. 

Post-election screenshot in which Trump eighty sixes CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House.

Donald J. Trump was everywhere this election except on the actual ballot, which helps to explain why Mike Harris has likely appeared on his last ballot in Petaluma.

Harris spent the better part of the past decade avoiding discussion of how he evolved from Tea Party Republican to the independent, principled, intelligent leader worthy of representing the citizens of Petaluma. Our weekly paper, the Argus-Courier, generously suggested that Harris’s “move makes it hard to discern his political leanings and could signal a willingness to make decisions because they are politically popular.”

My translation of the Argus’s kindness: today’s Mike Harris and the Mike Harris of 2008 are one and the same. He left the GOP when he found he could no longer get elected as a Republican.

Voter participation in Petaluma was way up this election, with interest in the mayoral, city council and school board races all high compared to the 2014 midterm.

Over 27,000 votes were cast for mayor in 2018, a nearly 50% increase over the 2014 numbers in the race between Mike Harris and David Glass, which Glass ultimately won by just 84 votes. This time around candidate Teresa Barrett emerged the victor in a landslide by comparison, 14,592 votes to 11,267 for Harris, for a 12% margin of 3,325 votes.

Teresa Barrett appeared to have broad appeal in the community, with a virtual lock on liberals, progressives and most everyone further left. With a strong core of dedicated volunteers who were among the first to begin walking door-to-door and most persistent, distributing yard signs and touching base with voters, Barrett also proved to have a considerable following amongst moderates and many younger voters that outgoing Mayor Glass did not. Voters cast 5,364 more votes for her in 2018 than were cast for Glass in 2014, a whopping 58% increase.

Of course, that was before Trump.

Mike Harris did significantly better in 2018 than in 2014 – earning 11,267 votes this year, over 2,100 more than in 2014. Harris himself had more or less been running for mayor again via social media ever since his previous loss to Glass, making himself a perpetually visible presence online and at community events over the past four years.

However, Harris’s social media visibility and his enduring popularity amongst Petaluma’s sizable but aging population of political conservatives were not nearly enough to overcome the changing political and ethnic demographics locally, or his previous association with a political party whose growth in unpopularity shows no sign of slowing.

With Trump TV dominating the corporate media’s 24 hour news cycle, and one his most reprehensible lawyers quite fond of the spotlight as well, every time Harris or a supporter tried to bring up an issue in any Facebook or Nextdoor conversation – any issue – opponents immediately changed the subject by inserting that remarkable image of Harris shaking Rudy Giuliani’s hand, with a giddy schoolboy-meeting-a-superstar grin on his face. 

If you listened carefully, every time Giuliani appeared on television during the autumn of 2018 you could hear audible groans from Harris supporters all over town. It was very sad, and wonderful.

One did not need to watch Noam Chomsky persuasively arguing that the GOP is the “most dangerous organization on earth,” owing to its dedication to ignoring climate change, removing environmental regulations and to burning more fossil fuels faster, in order to connect our local ballot to global issues of existential importance.

What did Harris offer voters this time around? It’s a good question he was incapable of adequately answering. His primary innovation this campaign appeared to be the effort to label Brian Goggin’s controversial “A Fine Balance” art work “Teresa’s Tubs,” believing it to be a deeply unpopular project he could convince voters was somehow Teresa Barrett’s baby.

Harris is well-known for negative campaigning, but A Fine Balance was not a major factor in the mayor’s race and the Harris campaign’s effort backfired, motivating Barrett supporters while offending many others for the lame and obviously factually incorrect assertion.

So by the time Petalumans began receiving pro-Harris/anti-Barrett mailers sponsored by big oil companies in their mailboxes, Harris was already doomed. Though a great turnout led to Harris doing far better than in 2014, he had little chance to win this race. Outside money made Teresa Barrett’s win a landslide compared to our 2014 race for mayor.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fine job many in our community did to inform the citizenry about the candidates on the ballot. 

The Argus-Courier’s local election and candidate coverage was among the best they’ve done in my admittedly brief 15 years in Petaluma. Yousef Baig in particular has shown considerable skill getting to the bottom of issues in his time with the paper, while editor Matt Brown and his crew made certain all the candidates were covered and the community was heard.

Though I did see it suggested in the Argus’s pages that Mike Harris was the mayoral candidate who possessed the “dynamic foresight” necessary to lead us into the 21st century, once I stopped laughing at the writer’s turn of phrase, the day after its publication (really – ‘Teresa’s Tubs’ was his sole innovation for 2018), I realized I shouldn’t necessarily hold the paper to account for the letters to the editor in its opinion pages. The young marketing professional who wrote that letter – with whom I am well-acquainted – had clearly consumed a highly influential flavor of Mike Harris Flav R Aid at a community nonprofit event the previous year, during which she’d interviewed him. The marketer had apparently been sold a candidate. 

We’re also indebted to that anonymous local progressive who left the Who is Mike Harris? website created for the 2014 Petaluma mayor’s race up for reference during the 2018 campaign. The site, now removed in a sign of good taste and neighborliness, undoubtedly made a difference in this race through a visually appealing and simple presentation – highly selective, of course – of Harris’s record as it appeared in the local press. It was a devastating introduction to his record that proved particularly compelling to newer Petalumans who were challenged to comprehend the enduring local popularity of a (former) Tea Party Republican.

[We do hope its creator has recovered from his traumatic experience unsuccessfully educating morons on Facebook; likely a wise move deleting those comments – RR].

If you’ve not yet tuned-in to KPCA-LP radio at 103.3 on the fm band or streaming online via the KPCA.fm website, you should. There’s an abundance of great music programming to be heard there, but also important current events programming produced by Petaluma residents, for Petaluma residents, that can be found nowhere else.

The volunteer member programmers of KPCA behind Two Mooks and a Mic, DG the 30 Something, Inside Petaluma, Talking with Rabbi Ted and more performed an extraordinary public service during the 2018 campaign by hosting all of the candidates for local office on the ballot and repeatedly engaging others in the community regarding those candidates and all of the issues on the ballot.

It wasn’t universally great or compelling, but it was community radio of exceptional public interest, the likes of which Petaluma has never seen before, at least in the modern era. [KPCA and its Petaluma Community Access parent have at long last found a new executive director to help guide it into the future, in the form of the talented and highly motivated Don Lewis, whom we wish great success. We hope you’ll lend your support to the organization in whatever form you are able – RR].

We must also credit the many activists, advocates and community leaders associated with the North Bay Organizing Project, Indivisible Petaluma, the Petaluma Progressives, Petaluma Tomorrow, and numerous other groups for their concerted efforts to get out the vote. Once the local campaign began in earnest, as the summer of 2018 drew to a close, progressive candidates for mayor, city council and the school board found a ready supply of eager volunteers already doing political and community organizing thanks to the animated times in which we live and were thus ready to go.

Now it’s time for electeds to get to work while rest of us gets started on 2020. Onward.

Reply to the Rooster

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.