By Mark Mellman - 09/13/06 12:00 AM EDT
I did not think about it at the time, but for the last few months, I was an ordinary voter, in the midst of competitive campaigns in the District of Columbia. I’ve lived in the District for over 20 years and have the same kind of personal stake in the future of the City every other citizen does, but I had no clients in the contests, and like most people, I was busy.
Upon reflection, I found the experience professionally instructive.
I confess I went into the voting booth knowing damn little. Of course, I have views on the key issues — schools, taxes, development, city budgeting, services. Nevertheless, I could not recite even one proposal from any mayoral candidate dealing with any of those issues. Endless hours spent honing just the right 7-point plan to address each pressing concern — wasted on me. I know more about immigration proposals offered by candidates in Arizona’s 8th CD than about the platforms of my own city’s mayoral candidates.
I read the Washington Post every day, though when pressed for time (often) I admit giving the Metro section short shrift. Could I be the nation’s only casual consumer of local political news? Each morning the campaign teams obsessed over the import of particular words in paragraph five. For all the effort, I can only remember one specific story in the whole race. Oddly enough, it focused on Linda Cropp’s decision to go negative — one of those process stories we pretend to abhor.
My house was deluged with direct mail. Only a few pieces even got a glance. The only one I remember arrived last weekend, trumpeting the wide swath of endorsements for Vincent Gray (a candidate for council chair, for those who paid even less attention than did I). There was nothing visually arresting about the piece. I just happened to pick it up and went to the endorsement list. Weeks ago, I vaguely remember getting some pieces that elicited a, “wow, pretty creative.” Now, though, I cannot muster the slightest recollection of who they were for or what they were about.
TV ads did not fare much better with me. I traded local news at 11 for the Daily Show long ago. I recall only one ad: Anthony Williams endorsing Linda Cropp. I remember the general message — Cropp is ready to be mayor (I think). However, what made it memorable was the odd sight of Cropp criticizing the mayor while sitting right next to him basking in his endorsement.
One politician endorsing another didn’t do much for me. I was more impressed by the wide array of groups with which I identify that backed Mr. Gray — unions, environmental groups, tenants’ organizations. Truth be told, I know not a single thing about Mr. Gray except his endorsers, but that was all I needed.
What did I learn about the mayoral candidates? Not an epic narrative, but here is the story line — and all the details — that stuck: Cropp served on the school board, is experienced, well-versed in city government and endorsed by Williams. Fenty is younger and more likely to shake things up. Earlier in his career, Fenty was disciplined for providing inadequate representation to clients. On Council he helped some friends of mine with a neighborhood issue. Marie Johns worked for Verizon, had no chance but was the thinking person’s candidate.
These candidates set out to communicate much more. They failed, at least with me. Though in the end, my meager impressions generated a vote. I am not proud of my ignorance, but being an average voter for a couple weeks was an educational experience.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.