We Can Do Better

Here in California’s 36th congressional district, our special election to fill the seat vacated by U.S. Rep Jane Harman could have been a high-minded affair, an honorable contest among progressive heavyweights.  Instead, it has become a schoolyard brawl.  

Yes, the campaigns went negative in the final stretch.   But it started as a grass roots grudge-fest, with the nastiness percolating furiously from the campaign partisans.

In a left-leaning district with a 16-candidate field and a new jungle primary, there are three solid, substantive progressive Democrats – Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn; Secretary of State Debra Bowen; and activist Marcy Winograd.  (I decided to back Janice.)

From the start, the back and forth between the candidates’ supporters has been crazy.  The exchanges on progressive listservs and social media are as practiced in the fine arts of distortion, exaggeration, and snarkiness as anything you could expect from Fox News.   Too often, we act more like campaign attack dogs than community organizers promoting progressive change.

We can do better than this.  We’re all fairly like-minded lefties.  Our differences in this race are matters of judgment and style, not matters of values.   The voters deserve more, and so do the candidates.

We need to chill out.  We need to stop standing in a circular firing squad, pulling the trigger on the semiautomatic weapons we all want to ban, so we can elect a Democrat who isn’t so bloodied and weakened that she falls prey to a GOP challenge next year, when the district will have likely been redrawn into a more moderate swing seat.

In the final hours of this primary, and as we head into what could be an unnecessarily painful runoff, there are several things we should all remember – regardless of whom we support:

1) The other candidate is probably not evil.

As much of we all enjoy getting whipped into campaign frenzy, the chances of our opponent being an agent of the Devil are pretty slim.  If she is willing to endure the rigors of a campaign, put her reputation on the line, and argue ideas and principles in the public arena, she probably has some redeeming characteristics.  It is okay to respect the other candidate.  It is acceptable to oppose someone without hating her or seeing her as morally reprehensible.

2) Our own candidate is probably not a saint.

No matter how much we love our candidate, no matter who she is – Janice, Debra, or Marcy -, she is human.  She has screwed up.  She has said some stupid things.   Cast some bad votes. She is not Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Gandhi. She is not perfect.  The failure of others to support her is not a sign of dementia, corruption, or ideological impurity.

3) The stakes aren’t as high as we’d like to pretend.

Particularly in a campaign among Democrats, the election is not likely to be a choice between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.   If the contest is between two or more candidates who each support single payer health care, who each want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan, and who all want to repeal DOMA, the differences are nuanced and not cataclysmic.   We could actually use the runoff to debate which candidate has the best jobs plan, would be best on net neutrality, or would really take on Wall Street.

4) The voters think we’re jackasses.

In this district and nationwide, people are hurting.  They need more and better jobs. They need better schools and cheaper health care. They need less pollution and traffic.   They want a discussion of solutions – and too often we give them Jerry Springer.  If we don’t shape up, we won’t have a low-turnout election, we’ll have a micro-turnout election.    We need to be invested a lot less in our need to beat someone, and lot more in the voters’ need to be heard and respected.

5) We’re forgotten how to persuade.

Ultimately, our goal as progressive activists is to elect progressive officials and win approval of progressive policies.   We’re never going to learn how to persuade independents and moderates if we can’t even persuade one another.    Our goal should not be to shame or beat senseless anyone who differs with us.  Our goal should be to find common ground, and build upon it.   Campaigns can forge candidates into better leaders.  Similarly, they should shape us into better activists and organizers.

We care passionately about our causes and our candidates, but too often our fervor drives us to wage and justify dirty, low class elections.  More than any time in our history, voters have access to information.   They are waiting for us to engage them on a higher level.  Let’s climb out of the cesspool and meet them there.

Mike Bonin, a Los Angeles resident and voter in the 36th District, is chief of staff to LA Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, a member of the DSCC from the 53rd Assembly District, and co-founder of Camp Courage, an acclaimed training program for activists working on issues of LGBT equality.

5 thoughts on “We Can Do Better”

  1. While I absolutely agree with the sentiment of Mike’s article, I have to disagree with his characterization that both campaigns “went negative” in the final stretch.

    Hahn’s campaign sent out a flurry of negative mailers on Friday, 4 in all that I know about. The mailers were so profoundly deceptive and toxic, I thought they’d come from one of the Republican candidates in the race.

    Bowen’s campaign was forced to defend itself, and sent out one mailer pointing out that Hahn was guilty of the very thing she accused Bowen of. Community leaders from the district, as well as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters (which have both endorsed Debra) condemned the attacks.

    Hahn’s reaction to the community’s outrage was to send out a fundraising letter saying she was proud of her campaign contributions….and then repeating her profoundly misleading attacks on Bowen.

    What this means, unfortunately, is that things are likely to get much, much worse over the next couple of months.

    The LA Weekly actually had a pretty good take on Hahn’s. Here’s a link: http://blogs.laweekly.com/info

  2. this is just about a handful of partisans, and the rest of us more or less bemused bystanders.

  3. In light of the HARMon record, all participants must be required to comment on their position on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and their preferences for Israeli vs American security.  

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