The redoubtable Steve Penna, like so many politico/journo wags, likes to say that whoever raises the most money in an election will win the election. In the last city council election, however, that was not true.
Both Corrin Rankin and Ernie Schmidt raised the most money, helped by significant personal loans to their campaigns. Yet they came in fourth and sixth, respectively. What went wrong?
Simple. They had nothing to say.
Yes, a big war chest will help you win an election if you have a message that resonates with voters. Rankin and Schmidt had nothing to hang a hat on, much less a vote for much of the election. In contrast, James Lee Han, who spent virtually nothing on the campaign gained the fifth spot because he set his positions clearly and disseminated them constantly through his materials. Unfortunately, his positions resonated only with a small group of people and not enough to get him elected, but in comparison to the other challengers, he spoke volumes.
Rankin began her campaign with a desire to “do something different” and engage through social media. She jumped out to a commanding presence between April and May and even got Penna to make off-the-record comments that she might be the candidate to beat. But as the campaign wore on, she only used social media to publish photos of herself with anonymous voters and avoided any appearance of having a concrete idea. Her stated positions were vague and generic (full disclosure: I consulted to Rankin from April until I resigned in August). What spoke loudest in her campaign was her litigious nature. That, too, might have had a hand in how she finished.
Schmidt started about a month later than Rankin but followed much the same bland course. He stepped it up signficantly in September and October with concrete ideas about tying downtown to the inner harbor, a youth council program with real teeth and several community improvement ideas, but by then it was too little too late (full disclosure: I consulted to Schmidt for September and October).
The incumbents on the other hand (and I include Diane Howard in this group) stated very clear goals and pointed out that they had done a pretty good job on the council (when you have a reserve fund in this day and age you’ve done well) and they said it from day one to election day. They also spent less money, almost collectively, of either Rankin or Schmidt.
Yes, incumbents have an added edge in any off-year election, but with the current anti-incumbent fervor in this country, having something to say and then saying it can overcome that edge. If Jeff Gee, John Seybert and Howard ran their campaigns on generic messages, we might have had one or two new council members.
Content trumps cash. Everytime.