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Stateside: Girls on TV

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

Girls on TV

No, not THAT girl, whose debate with Joe Biden I watched at a viewing party where Palin Bingo cards were handed out so people could mark off the stock phrases the Alaska Governor uses. Thankfully it wasn’t a drinking game or the audience would have soon become even more raucous than it was inclined to be right from the get go. (You can read a live blog by a local newspaper reporter at another viewing party in Oakland here.)

The girls I speak of are much lesser-known candidates—two who are in a run-off election for the Oakland’s At-Large council seat. You’re probably not much interested in them but their campaigns serve as a window into the political system in the U.S. and it’s a very blurry window that I’m trying to de-blur for myself by writing this.

Last Friday, the Oakland City Council At-Large candidates participated in a live debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and carried on the local government access cable channel, KTOP. Cable-challenged, I performed my civic duty of learning about who I have a choice of voting for next month by going to the City Hall meeting room where the debate was being held.

The League of Women Voters does a sterling, non-nonsense job of running debates—in fact, they sponsored the 1976, 1980. and 1984 presidential debates before the Commission on Presidential Debates was established to take control of them from 1988 onwards. Volunteers from the League act as timekeepers, moderators, and collectors of questions from the audience at venues such as school halls and public libraries all across the nation so that voters can inform themselves about their local candidates and issues.

Click to enlarge

Rebecca Kaplan (L) and Kerry Hamill at Oakland City Hall on Friday, October 3, 2008. In the foreground are the League of Women Voters timekeepers for their debate.

Rebecca Kaplan and Kerry Hamill are the two candidates for the Oakland City Council at-large seat. (The at-large seat represents all constituents in the city, rather than just those in a particular ward.) Kaplan first ran for that office in 2000 but lost. She then moved her sights to being on the board of the AC Transit District, and won 82 percent of the vote in her bid for that office in 2006.

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District oversees public transportation systems serving the 1.5 million people living in its 364 square mile service area. As an At-Large Director, Kaplan noted in her opening statement in Friday’s debate, “I represent more people than Sarah Palin.”

Among the endorsements on her website, Kaplan lists individual Democratic Party politicians, such as State Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, a couple of local Democratic clubs and caucuses, and the Democratic Party of Alameda County.

According to the ACDP website: “The Alameda County Democratic Party coordinates the party's activities throughout the county, making endorsements, organizing events and directing resources to support local, state and national candidates. Its governing body, the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, is charged under state law with overseeing the Party's local activities and campaigns, under the general direction of the California Democratic Party.”

The website lists 61 candidates the ACDP is endorsing for nonpartisan offices, noting at the bottom of the page: “These are the only official Democratic Party endorsements for these offices in Alameda County for the November 4 election, and have been made under authority granted to the local Democratic Party by the California Democratic Party.” The Number One rule for people to be considered for endorsement by the ACDP is that they be a member of the Democratic Party.

The Alameda County Republican Party’s website shows no endorsements. Presumably that’s because any candidate they might have supported for nonpartisan office were knocked out during the June election in the heavily left-leaning Democratic stronghold of the East Bay. The website of the Orange County Republican Party—the shoe is on the other foot in the OC—lists its June endorsements.

So what, you say, Well, Article 2, Section 6 of California’s Constitution states that “All judicial, school, county and city offices shall be nonpartisan,” and an amendment to that section in 1986 added “No political party or party central committee may endorse, support or oppose a candidate for nonpartisan office.” Somewhere in the mysteries of the California legal code or in the way these county-level parties are set up is there something that defines them as something other than a “political party”.

Right about here in my efforts to understand, I want to give up and go and watch something mind-numbingly dumb on the telly. What the freaking use is a constitution—so neatly and concisely written—if everyone then finds some clever-dicky way to ignore what it says? This nation is not so much the oft-quoted “government of laws not men,” as John Adams said when drafting the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, as government by finaglers.

But I’m sorry to say there is something even worse about Kaplan’s campaign materials. On her website and in handouts—even in her opening remarks in the debate—she states that she is endorsed by the Green Party of Alameda County. Not true! Yes, she was endorsed by them in the June primary election, but she has lost that endorsement for this run-off election. Not least because she switched her party affiliation in order to get some endorsements.

The Green Party’s election guide endorses neither candidate and, among other reasons for not endorsing Kaplan, states:

“Her decision to leave the Green Party marks a clear disagreement in priorities with ours. The Green Party does not exist only to advance any one person’s public service career or promote certain progressive proposals. The Green Party exists to offer the public an alternative to the two major corporate parties which is badly needed at all levels of government. Here in Oakland we have a monopoly of Democrats in local office. If Kaplan decided to change her party registration as a result of pressure (from whomever) it says little about her ability to stand up to the INEVITABLE pressure that she will receive as an elected official.”

This change of registration was brought up in the debate by Kaplan’s opponent. Hamill asked her directly about it, and Kaplan replied that at the time she first registered Green—she has been endorsed by them since 2000—the Greens “were standing up for things the Democrats weren’t” but now she’s “happy to support the party of Barack Obama.”

Kerry Hamill, for her part, has a background working for local Democratic elected officials, is on the Oakland school board, and believes “the budget is the ultimate policy document.” Her main platform is public safety. The neighborhood where I live, for example, has been blitzed with her campaign placards. It is a high crime area, but is represented in the State Assembly by Sandre Swanson—who, as I said at the beginning, has endorsed Kaplan.

The way politics work here, Swanson’s endorsement means Kaplan doesn’t even need to spend money or time in my neck of the woods. People will just vote “down ticket” for the people recommended by the people they vote for “up ticket”—making a complete mockery of the idea that anything below state office is really and truly a nonpartisan race.

What a farce American demockracy is!



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