So Ya Wanna Be a Commissioner?

(Originally written in 1991.)

And why not? If they can do it, so can you! After all, as Robert Louis Stevenson observed, politics is the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary. (And anyone who can write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde must know a lot about politicians.)

This spring there will be an open, at-large seat on the Gainesville City Commission when David Coffey’s second and final term expires. Three seats on the Alachua County Commission will be up for election in the fall.

Already the deluge of announcements and rumors of candidacies resembles the ash fall from Mount Pinatubo. So before you depart for Promise Land, why not take this little test to see if you’re likely to complete the journey?

Basic ingredients

  1. Education. Do you have at least a bachelor’s degree? If so, score 10 points. Score an additional 10 points if you have a degree beyond a bachelor’s, such as a master’s or doctorate or law degree.
  2. Occupation. Does your occupation fall into one of these categories: teaching, public administration, or professional in private practice? If so, score 20 points.
  3. Public service. Score 20 points if you have a solid record of service on city or county boards and committees. An adequately impressive record typically consists of appointment to at least two different boards or committees, for a total of at least two years, including at least one year in a high-visibility role on a high-profile board or committee. An incumbent candidate automatically qualifies for these points.
  4. Campaign experience. Give yourself 20 points if one of these two conditions is true: (a) You’ve never been a candidate before, but you’ve been part of the “inner circle” of a successful campaign; or (b) you’ve been a candidate before, and you haven’t lost more than one election.

Bonus points and penalties

  1. Race. If you’re black and your score so far is at least 60, then give yourself an additional 10 points. If you’re black and your score is below 50, subtract 10 points.
  2. Age. If you’ve never held office before and are between the ages of 30 and 44, score an additional 5 points. If you are under 30 and a full-time student, subtract 5 points.
  3. Local hero(ine). Add 10 points for an exceptional record as a citizen-activist, someone who has organized and championed a cause of community-wide significance. Add 10 more points for being an experienced commission-watcher who has a solid record of I-told-you-so’s on important issues.
  4. Support base. Add 10 points if you can count on the support of a dedicated group of financial supporters and/or campaign volunteers who have backed winning candidates in the recent past. Even though city commission contests are non-partisan, add 5 points if you are a Republican who has the active support of the local Republican party. (If you’re a Democrat, try not to laugh out loud if someone asks what the local Democratic party is doing to help your campaign.)
  5. Two-time loser. If you have lost two or more prior elections, forfeit all points.
  6. Incumbent in run-off election. If you are the incumbent and in a run-off election, forfeit all points.

Rationale for the test

Who stands a chance and who doesn’t? Rather than casting about for an oracle, you should look at how voters cast their ballots in the past. What qualities distinguish the winners from the losers?

The 10 questions above are based on a careful analysis of nearly 200 candidates in more than 60 Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission elections over the past twenty years. The same picture emerges from both types of elections.

With only 9 or 10 exceptions, winning candidates score 60 or more points on the first four questions alone. Of these few exceptional victories, all but two or three can be accounted for by the six additional questions.

The single most remarkable characteristic shared by winning candidates is that the overwhelming majority of winners have an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Any time since the early 70’s, at least three of five members on either commission held an advanced degree.

In nearly all the cases where a candidate without an advanced degree was elected, the winner still had a higher education than his or her opponents.
Up until the last two or three years, there were few private business owners on either commission at any given time. Most commissioners have had a background in education or public administration when they were first elected.

When candidates are evenly matched on education and occupation, the winner has almost always excelled on the “apprenticeship” factors of board and committee service, campaign experience, and community activism.

On all but one or two occasions, when a candidate with a low score on education and occupation defeated a candidate with a higher score on these two factors, the loser was either an incumbent forced into a run-off election or a long-time commissioner in a one-on-one race against a challenger with substantial bonus points.

In a few cases, no candidates had scores over 40 or 50. In those elections, the winner was still the candidate who had the highest score.

The first four factors also distinguish successful black candidates from unsuccessful ones. In fact, blacks with high scores appear to get more votes than similarly qualified whites, whereas blacks with low scores seem to get fewer votes than corresponding whites. This is the justification for the fifth question.

Only three or four commissioners since the early 1970’s have been older than 45 when elected for the first time. On the other hand, many have grown old in office; some, faster than others.

At least as far back as the late Sixties, a simple rule applies to both city and county commission elections: Incumbents ALWAYS lose run-off elections, unless their name is Turlington. County Commissioner Ed Turlington was twice forced into a run-off election as an incumbent, and both times he prevailed; no other incumbent has won a run-off election.

Another consistent rule can be derived: No one has ever won a commission election if they had two prior losses. “Third time’s a charm” does not compute. “Two strikes and you’re out” is more like it.

Unconventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom says issues matter most. Or money buys the election. Or the Gainesville Sun endorsement is decisive.

But we call something conventional wisdom in order to distinguish it from true wisdom, which is never conventional. If everyone knew it, it wouldn’t be wisdom; it would just be common sense.

Of course issues matter — they motivate future candidates to get involved in politics to begin with. They attract volunteers and contributors to a campaign. They shape the discussions that make up a campaign.

But no particular position on local issues is a decisive victory factor. Some environmentalist candidates win while others lose; some pro-development candidates lose while others win.

Spending lots of money on a campaign is also no guarantee of victory. Two current city commissioners and two current county commissioners spent considerably less than their opponents. If elections could simply be bought, Perry McGriff and Clay Phillips would be on the county commission and Mitch Glaeser would be on the city commission. There are many other similar examples over the years.

By the same token, The Gainesville Sun‘s endorsement is helpful, but not sufficient. How important is it? It’s not possible to say how many votes or percentage points a Sun endorsement (or anyone else’s) is worth. What we can say for sure is that, when there are three or more candidates in a race, the Sun endorsement (virtually) guarantees that the recipient will either win outright or go into a run-off election with the first-place finisher.

Over about 20 years, only one instance has broken from this pattern: in his first bid for the city commission, David Coffey received the Sun endorsement and did finish in second place, but Jean Chalmers received enough votes to avoid a run-off election.

In two-person commission races, the Sun‘s batting average is only a little over .500 in the sort of close races where the endorsement really matters. When immensely popular candidates win by landslide margins over token opposition, it’s pretty obvious that the Sun‘s endorsement cannot be credited with the outcome.

In other words, the Sun endorsement guarantees a first- or second-place finish. If there are only two candidates, second place isn’t worth much. If there are more than two candidates, it will at least put you in a run-off election if it doesn’t give you the winning edge.

So why, then, do the factors in the test take precedence over other considerations? No voter will confess “I’m voting for Candidate X because she has a master’s degree, doesn’t work in the private sector, goes to a lot of meetings, and was the brains behind the mayor’s campaign last year.”

The factors in the test questions seldom become conscious considerations in voting decisions. The factors acquire their power by virtue of the fact that they equip a person to be an articulate, credible, well-organized candidate. Without that aura, it’s almost impossible to win. It doesn’t do much good to have a well-financed campaign if you sound like a buffoon. Or you may be the model of political virtue but still run an inept campaign.

In short, the characteristics covered by the first four questions prepare a candidate to approach any issue with an open mouth. They familiarize the wannabe commissioner with the rituals a successful politician must master.

Abort, retry, ignore?

The test measures electability. The threshold score on the test is 65. That is, you need to score 65 or higher to be electable. If both candidates are electable, the one with the higher score usually, but not always, wins. Therefore, the test mainly shows who isn’t electable.

If your score is below 65, just about the only way to win is to be fortunate enough to have opponents with scores that are even lower. If everyone in a race has a low score, someone is still going to win — in these cases it has always been the one with the highest score.

If your score is below 50, it’s probably hopeless; unless your goal is something other than winning, do yourself (and your friends and family) a favor and quit while you’re behind. On the other hand, if all you lack is campaign experience, consider running once for the practice and to bring up your score. But if you go that route, you only get one more chance.

The other way to get campaign experience is to immerse yourself in someone else’s campaign to get a close-up look at what candidates have to do, before becoming one yourself.

What else can you do to bring up a low grade? Concentrate primarily on raising your score on those first four factors. Get a degree or two. Adopt a cause and carry it to completion; learn how to make government act in the public interest in spite of itself.

Now stop thinking about silly tests and remember that only one test really matters: whoever gets the most votes wins. 1992 could be your big chance to make your mark kissing babies or other segments of the body politic.


(Not published with original document)

  1. The article gores a few sacred cows by debunking certain treasured myths about why elections were won or lost. The main point of the article is that first you have to have an electable candidate. Out of over 60 elections in the last 20 years, only two “unelectable” candidates have won — Gary Junior in 1976 and George Dekle in 1988. That’s a batting average for the test of over .966, pretty good for volunteer work.
  2. Just for the record, here are the elections that were won by candidates who didn’t score 60 on the first four questions:
        Gary Junior in '76		Jim Notestein in '84
        Bobbie Lisle in '76		Penny Wheat in '86
        Shelly Downs in '76		George Dekle in '88
        Mark Goldstein in '78	Rodney Long in '88
        Mac McEachern in '81	Jim Painter in '90

    Eight of these are accounted for by the other six questions. Lisle and Downs beat incumbents in run-off elections. Goldstein, Notestein, and Wheat picked up enough bonus points to put them over the electability threshold. McEachern, Long, and their opponents were all low scorers on the first four questions, but Mac and Rodney soundly outscored their opponents with bonus points. When Notestein lost to Painter in ’90, he had lost two elections (City Commission in ’79 and County in ’88), therefore he forfeited all points. That leaves Junior and Dekle as the only true exceptions.

  3. The article doesn’t mean to imply that unelectable candidates shouldn’t run. It just says, if you aren’t electable, be clear on what your goals are — pressing an issue, trying to get enough votes to force a run-off, getting campaign experience, ego tripping, or whatever. Just getting the campaign experience may make you electable the next time you run. For example, Notestein, Gary Gordon, David Coffey, Tom McKnew, McEachern, Jean Chalmers, Dekle, and Leveda Brown all lost an election before coming back to win on their second try.

Postscript, 2011

The article above was originally written in 1991 and its basic points survived the rest of the 90’s unscathed. However, beginning around 2000 a few unexpected results occurred. It’ll be useful to look at them in detail.

Where The Sun don’t shine

Another rare exception to the rule that a Gainesville Sun endorsement guarantees at least a top two finish occurred. In his first try for a seat on the Gainesville City Commission, Rick Bryant received The Sun‘s endorsement but finished third in the primary election. Bryant would run again the following year, get the endorsement again, and win the election. (Perhaps out of economic necessity, The Sun would eventually stop offering endorsements in local elections.)

Two strikes and you’re NOT out?

When Chuck Chestnut was finally elected to the City Commission, it was the only time someone who had lost two previous elections had ever come back to win. He lost an at-large election to Paula DeLaney in 1992, and a district election to Ed Jennings, Sr. in 1994, before finally replacing Jennings in 2000.

What he did in the interim may prove instructive to others. He served the constituents of his district as president of the local chapter of the NAACP and built up his political capital as a community activist. This period of laboring in the fields, so to speak, distinguishes his experience from those Energizer bunnies who just keep running and running and…

Dead man’s curve

In the 1980’s Archer activist Lee McSherry and I coined the term “the dead man’s vote,” meaning you could run a dead man in a two-person race and he’d still get 30% of the vote. I’ve actually heard a losing candidate say on election night, “I thought we did pretty well – we got 33% of the vote.” That’s about like bragging, “I’m proud that the landslide chose me to fall on.”

One such candidate was Republican Don Marsh, who ran against the popular Democratic incumbent, Cynthia Chestnut, for a seat on the County Commission in 2002. Although, technically, there was a third candidate on the ballot, his presence was a mere formality. Predictably, with Marsh having an electability score that barely reached double digits, he finished in the low 30’s, percentage-wise.

Not quite eight years pass and Marsh is running for the open mayor’s seat on the Gainesville City Commission, as the self-described Tea Party candidate. The acknowledged front-runner is two-term City Commissioner Craig Lowe. The primary election narrows the five-person field to Lowe and Marsh, who receive 40% and 29% of the vote, respectively.

In any other year, Marsh would have garnered little more than the dead man’s vote yet again. But 2010 was not any other year. Marsh would lose the run-off by a mere 42 votes, the closest citywide election in memory. How he managed to come so close to an upset is worth examining.

We can assume Marsh starts out with 30% of the vote automatically. Where did the rest of his votes come from? He probably got a boost of 3% to 5% from the support of fellow Tea Party activists, but the bulk of his additional votes can be found, not just in Lowe’s but in the entire City Commission’s baggage.

For several years the City Commission had piled one controversial decision on top of another:

      • A wood-burning power plant
      • The purchase of the Mom’s Kitchen building
      • The one-stop homeless center and the St. Francis house meal limit
      • Ironwood Golf Course
      • The fire service assessment
      • The Community Redevelopment Agency’s new office building
      • Gainesville Regional Utility’s new office building
      • The location of the Public Works Department’s equipment compound

You could see it in letters to the editor; you could hear it on the streets; you could see it on television in the Citizen Comment portion of meetings. Each issue pushed the buttons of a different segment of the electorate, with one person after another stating, “I’ll vote for anybody before I vote for someone who supported [insert issue here].”

Having been on the Commission while all these issues were decided, and having supported most of them, Lowe became the lightning rod for voter discontent. With each of these issues commanding as little as 2% to 5% of the total vote, it’s easy to account for Marsh’s near upset. In support of the conclusion that not all of Marsh’s showing came from positive support for his candidacy, he ran again in 2011 and logged only about 40% of the vote against incumbent Thomas Hawkins, who won reelection without a run-off.

But Don Marsh would not be the only Tea Party crasher of 2010. In the general election ballot for a County Commission seat, political newcomer Susan Baird opposed the same Cynthia Chestnut who trounced Don Marsh eight years earlier. This time around Chestnut found herself on the receiving end of an endless barrage of attack letters in the Gainesville Sun and angry speeches at Commission meetings.

She was specifically attacked for championing the CHOICES local health care initiative, and was lumped in with the County Commission majority and excoriated for a laundry list of other allegedly unwise choices:

      • Underfunding the Sheriff
      • Neglecting roads
      • Raising taxes
      • Supporting bike paths and roundabouts
      • Funding “unnecessary” programs, such as Environmental Protection

Despite having an electability score of about 35, Baird won by a comfortable 54% to 46% margin.

Three County Commission seats will be on the 2012 ballot. The attacks on those three incumbents only intensified after Baird’s victory. One of those incumbents, Rodney Long, announced his retirement from politics in mid-2011. The other two incumbents, Mike Byerly and Paula DeLaney, can expect the fight of their political lives if they seek reelection.

Mr. Ed rides again

In 1991 I wrote, “Incumbents ALWAYS lose run-off elections unless their name is Turlington.”

So what do I make of Warren Nielsen surviving a run-off? Funny you should ask…

In back-to-back reelection races in the 1980’s, County Commissioner Ed Turlington was forced into run-off elections. Though originally enjoying the support of a coalition of progressives, environmentalists and neighborhood activists, he had alienated many in those camps by consistently voting alongside the pro-development majority on the County Commission. As a result, challengers attracted many of those voters who had previously supported Turlington. They didn’t draw enough of those votes to win or even stay in the running, but they did force Turlington into run-off elections.

In the first case, Turlington faced well-known good ol’ boy and developer, Ben Campen. In the second, he faced bank president Jim Emerson. Both opponents promised to be even more pro-development than Turlington had been. In response, environmentalists and neighborhood activists mobilized grassroots efforts to turn out the run-off votes on Turlington’s behalf, and in both cases prevailed, relying on an explicit lesser-of-two-evils message.

Zoom ahead two decades to Warren Nielsen’s 2003 reelection campaign for Gainesville City Commissioner.

Nielsen had similarly disappointed many of the progressives, environmentalists and neighborhood activists who had supported his initial election. Like a weakened alpha wolf, he faced a number of rivals on his left and his right. And (doubly) like Turlington, he found himself not only an incumbent in a run-off election, but in a run-off against an actual prominent developer, Betsy Whitaker. And once again, the same coalition mounted a successful campaign to convince their allies to go to the polls, hold their noses, and return the lesser of the two evils to office.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Warren… Nielsen… Turlington!

In over 40 years of City and County Commission elections, these are the ONLY exceptions to incumbents losing run-off elections, and all three involve virtually identical scenarios. (For the record, there are at least eight City Commission elections since the 1970’s in which incumbents lost their run-off.)

Why is it so precarious for an incumbent to be forced into a run-off election? Two reasons:

First, when an incumbent draws two or more serious challengers in a primary election, it’s probably an indication of the incumbent’s vulnerability. Serious, i.e. electable, candidates rarely run the risk of taking on an incumbent who’s viewed as popular and successful.

Second, because of the visibility an incumbent enjoys, he or she is a known quantity among voters.

When someone decides to vote for one of the challengers, it’s an acknowledgement the voter has NOT given the incumbent the benefit of the doubt that he or she should be returned to office. In other words, a vote that’s not FOR the incumbent is very likely a vote AGAINST the incumbent.

As an undergrad, I majored in math and science. What kind of science? Political science. And one of the first things I learned in my State and Local Politics class comes as close to being the Law of Gravity in political science as you can get:

Incumbents ALMOST ALWAYS lose run-off elections
for state and local offices.

Now, don’t say you didn’t get the memo.

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