Tony Santos is at it again. Since being defeated by Stephen Cassidy in the November 2010 San Leandro mayoral election, Santos has made no secret of his bitterness and resentment. He has blamed anyone and everyone (excluding himself) for his defeat and has committed his forced retirement to the cause of defeating “ranked choice voting” throughout the country. He’s written letters, had himself interviewed, and in his latest stunt, he testified in Sacramento against making it easier for California cities to institute ranked choice voting. He is sure, he will tell you, that ranked choice voting was the ultimate culprit for his loss. And he may be right.
It is difficult, even for insiders, to get a good grasp of the 2010 mayoral campaign in San Leandro. Santos had been in and out of City Hall for decades. He was running for re-election as Mayor with the support of Labor, fire fighters, and, at the 11th hour, the police. He was confident, even cocky, that he would easily win. After all, no elected-mayor had ever lost re-election in San Leandro (one appointed mayor, who’d promised not to run prior to his appointment, did lose). Incumbents have many advantages in city races: they enjoy name recognition, can easily gather up endorsements and have a much easier time raising money – nobody wants to say no to a sitting Mayor or City Council member. In addition, voters who don’t pay particular attention to city politics and are not extremely dissatisfied with city services, tend to vote for incumbents. For this reason, sitting San Leandro mayors seldom face serious competition; it was almost incomprehensible to Santos that he would face not just one, but two credible opponents.
Council woman Joyce Starosciak seemed like an unlikely Mayoral contender. In 2010, she was half-way through her second term in office, and could list few accomplishments and fewer long-term plans for San Leandro. If her intentions were to actually run the city, it’d have made the most sense for her to wait until 2014 to run, when Santos would be termed out. Starosciak, however, was in a hurry. As Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi’s heiress apparent, Starosciak was posed to run for Assembly in 2012. She’d be better positioned to win if she did so as Mayor of San Leandro, than as a mere City Council member. She had good reason to believe she could win: a top campaign manager, lots of money (including some from a Hayashi-associated PAC), and support from the police (her husband is a sheriff deputy with Alameda County). Most importantly, Starosciak was a woman. After Ellen Corbett was elected to the California Senate in 2006, defeating better funded male opponents, the conventional wisdom within political circles was that women had a natural advantage in democratic districts (and San Leandro is heavily democratic). Starosciak’s main message during her campaign was indeed “I’m a woman and a native of San Leandro.” It was a message that Santos feared.
Stephen Cassidy’s reasons for running in 2010 were murkier. He had been elected to the San Leandro School Board in 2004, after defeating a well-connected incumbent, but after four tumultuous years in the Board he’d chosen not to seek re-election (he had, however, engineered the election of two friendly candidates in his stead). He had long been rumored to have further political ambitions so it wasn’t a complete surprise when he decided to run for Mayor. He did so basically with a message of competency: “elect me and get someone who can actually read a budget and think long term.” Cassidy’s political strategy was to appeal to distinct voter groups with slightly different messages: to conservatives and the elderly, with a message of fiscal responsibility; to parents, with promises of better relations between the cities and the schools; to Spanish and Chinese speaking voters, with fliers in their own languages. Cassidy’s underdog status meant that he was unable to get big donations from corporations and PACs, but he made up for it by building an impressive grass-root apparatus and tapping into the professional experience of his supporters. Cassidy recruited a former evangelist for Apple Computer, an expert on messaging, as his campaign manager. A local graphic designer put tens of hours of work into his campaign literature and his website while a top computer programmer provided back end and mailing list support. Another techie was in charge of his voter data analysis. The other candidates had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for similar services. Meanwhile, an army of volunteers organized fundraisers and house coffees, walked, telephoned, wrote letters and passed on fliers for his campaign (full disclosure, I helped Cassidy with his campaign in the initial months). Cassidy himself spent over a year walking the streets of San Leandro and introducing himself to voters. His was a grass-root campaign at its best.
The November 2010 San Leandro city election was the first time in which ranked choice voting (RCV) , also known as “instant runoff voting,” would be used in San Leandro. The city had amended its charter to permit ranked choice voting early in 2000, but had only implemented it a few months before. The appeal of RCV to city staff was that it allowed for both general elections and runoffs to be conducted at one time, saving staff time and the city money. Progressive members of the City Council liked that RCV allowed elections to be held in November (rather than June), which meant they’d have greater voter participation. However, RCV was not popular with all City Council members. Starosciak, in particular, wanted to change San Leandro’s elections back to a plurality system, where the candidate that got the most votes would win, even if s/he did not reach 50% of the votes. Given the assumption that female candidates had a natural advantage with the electorate, Starosciak figured a plurality system would virtually guarantee her winning. Her plan never got much traction with the other members of the Council, however.
As discussions for implementing ranked choice voting got more serious in early 2010, then-Mayor Tony Santos became its biggest advocate. He was seduced by the rhetoric of Fair Vote, an organization that lobbies for RCV, and convinced by his friends in Labor to push the City into implementing RCV for the 2010 elections. He went as far as suspending a tied vote on RCV, so that a City Council member that had been absent for the vote could break the tie and have the ordinance pass. Santos later said that supported RCV because he had been told RCV mostly benefited incumbents.
As the 2010 Mayoral race developed, none of the campaigns had a firm grasp on who the top contenders were and how RCV would play into the equation. The Santos campaign conducted an informal telephone poll at the end of the summer which showed Santos in the lead, with Starosciak a distant second. Though the poll was methodologically flawed, Santos took it as a sign that he would easily win and that Cassidy wasn’t a threat of any kind. While he delighted in attacking Cassidy through a friendly blogger, he didn’t feel compelled to put much effort into his campaign. He rarely walked, never fliered, and his first mailer did not even arrive until several days after absentee voters had received their mail-in ballots (ideally, you want to have your mailer arrive at the same time as the ballots, so your name is fresh in the mind of those voters who like to vote right away). It wasn’t until mid-October that Santos’ campaign realized that Cassidy posed a considerable threat: more and more people they encountered were openly supporting Cassidy, the city was blanketed with his lawn signs, and letters to the papers were overwhelmingly in Cassidy’s favor. Santos’ campaign quickly issued a mailer answering Cassidy’s charges against him and put forth robo-calls from, among others, Senator Ellen Corbett, urging voters to vote for him. This helped him enormously with poll-day voters, but it was too late to impact those who had already mailed their ballots.
Starosciak’s campaign was in trouble from the moment Cassidy entered the race. As most challengers, Starosciak needed to run on a message of “change,” but as a sitting member of the City Council there was just so far she could carry this message without convincing voters that they should vote for Cassidy, the outsider, instead. Cassidy’s criticism of City Council’s actions – like spending all the city’s reserves – while primarily aimed at Santos, also applied to her. She couldn’t answer the charges, however, without helping Santos’ own campaign. Her strategy, then, seemed to be to keep out of the fray and run on her gender, personal charm and San Leandro native status. While she ran a more energetic campaign than Santos, and hired people to walk and make phone calls for her campaign, she never really acquired much momentum. By the fall, even the police had abandoned her and co-endorsed Santos.
Cassidy, meanwhile, kept pushing his message of “competence” and “fiscal accountability,” accusing City Hall of mismanagement at every possible turn. His big issue was “pension reform” for City employees. This made him terribly unpopular with the employee unions and Labor but hit a nerve with local voters as even the Democratic candidates for Governor and State Treasurer started to talk about the need for pension reform at the state level.
Of the three campaigns, the only one that seemed to take RCV into account was Cassidy’s. As he and his supporters walked and called voters, they specifically asked those who expressed support for one of the other candidates, to mark Cassidy as their second choice. Neither of the other two campaigns seem to have done this. Indeed, Santos’ campaign showed contempt for the whole RCV process by telling supporters to not mark second or third choices.
One of the biggest criticisms of ranked choice voting is that final election results were not available until weeks after election night. This proved to be the case in San Leandro. Election night results had Santos winning the first round by 62 votes (out of over 20,000 cast); two weeks later, when all second and third place votes had been counted, Cassidy was ahead by 232 votes and was declared the winner. Santos could not accept the results, and to this day he has not conceded defeat.
At first glance, it would appear that Santos is right when he blames RCV for his defeat. He did have 62 more 1st-place votes than Cassidy and in a plurality system like the one Starosciak advocated, Santos would have won. However, San Leandro specifically got rid of plurality elections in 2000, after Ellen Corbett and Shelia Young became mayor with less than 50% of the total vote. San Leandrans did not want a mayor which the majority of the people had not elected.
Had RCV not been implemented in San Leandro, the Mayoral elections would have taken place in June 2010, with the two top candidates facing a runoff in November. Given the lack of independent, accurate polling data (polls are too expensive to conduct for most local elections), it’s impossible to say what would have happened if that had been the case. Starosciak only received about 20% of the first-choice vote in November, so it’s reasonable to believe she wouldn’t have been one of the two top vote-getters in June, but a longer campaign cycle together with the increased media attention to Cassidy’s pet issue, pension reform, probably benefited Cassidy considerably. It definitely allowed him more time for both campaigning and fundraising.
But had Cassidy and Santos been the top vote-getters in June, it is by no means clear who would have won in November. Santos would have surely benefitted both by knowing who his real opponent was and how popular he was. If the election had been as close in June as the first round was in November, Santos would surely have seen the need to step up his campaign. Given how well he did with poll-day voters once he took campaigning seriously, that may very well have given him a victory.
On the other hand, a June-November election cycle might also have benefited Cassidy. Cassidy’s main problem, as is the case with all underdog challengers, was raising enough funds to put forth a credible campaign. A good June placement would have demonstrated to political contributors that Cassidy was a very viable candidate and would have likely opened their wallets. Such placement would also have re-energized Cassidy’s volunteers and brought additional supporters into the campaign.
An additional factor that cannot be accurately assessed is who Starosciak would have endorsed. After her November defeat she was quite bitter with both Santos (who made a series of serious personal attacks against her during the campaign) and Cassidy (whom she sees as having stolen the election from her), so it’s hard to envision her supporting either.
In any case, we will never know. We also don’t know how the November 2010 San Leandro RCV election will affect future elections in San Leandro or elsewhere. Future candidates will hopefully learn of the importance of seeking 2nd and 3rd choice votes. Note that this does not mean that candidates will necessarily run “kinder,” less negative campaigns. Candidates in races with clear front runners need to attack their records in order to take votes from them. If anything, what an RCV election may do is focus political attacks on the front runner(s), but that is just as true in regular elections.
When all is said and done, Santos has nobody to blame for his defeat but himself: he antagonized voters by treating them callously during public fora and by taking unpopular positions (e.g. not supporting San Leandro Hospital, dismissing fears about crime and supporting a large affordable housing project), he put little effort into running his campaign and he did not take RCV into consideration in his campaign strategy. Other incumbents can learn from his mistakes.