Jeff Jardine

Speaking of Modesto’s mayoral race, candidates better at small talk

After listening to Modesto’s mayoral candidates face off for The Modesto Bee’s endorsement last week, I came away wondering this:

How vital is it for a local politician to be a loquacious public speaker and effective communicator during a campaign?

Clearly, neither incumbent Garrad Marsh nor challenger Ted Brandvold wow you with their oratory skills. Marsh has more experience, a better grasp of the issues and a more thorough understanding of the inner machinations of city government having served first on the council for eight years and these past four as mayor. But his first term raised more questions about his communication skills than it answered. Think not? He claimed he’s the one who wants to save Wood Colony from developers, yet about 300 people showed up to a City Council meeting about a couple of years ago to protest because he failed to convey his real intentions or because they simply weren’t buying. Same with the public safety tax measures he backed, both of which failed.

Brandvold, meanwhile, is new to the political arena and it shows. A few times, he prefaced non-answers by conceding that he isn’t as up to speed as Marsh, and won’t be until he gets elected. He merely stated and restated that as mayor he would be a collaborator to the point where it is his default answer.

The message each came to deliver that day got lost in the translation.

That stated, does it really matter how they fared face-to-face in a private meeting with a half-dozen other people? And will it matter how they handle themselves during their only public forum during the League of Women Voters event Monday? Do they need to come off as being dynamic? The smartest person in the room? A Toastmaster? Jerry Seinfeld?

No, according to people who study politics and elections for a living. These local elections are completely different animals than state or national campaigns because they offer so few opportunities for the candidates to debate before large crowds. Forums leading up to the November election, when Marsh and Brandvold emerged as finalists, drew disappointing crowds. Whereas presidential campaigns include multiple debates for each party and give voters numerous chances to make a choice, the local races tend to be conducted – as strange as it might seem – under the radar.

“That’s precisely why they have such an abysmally low turnout rate,” said Stephen Routh, a political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus. “There’s such limited exposure. Voters don’t want to cast an ignorant vote, so they don’t vote at all.”

Those who do vote, Routh said, often rely on a candidate’s endorsements. In essence, voters trust like-minded people and associations to do the vetting for them. Brandvold received backing from the Modesto police and firefighters associations – which supported Marsh in 2011 – along with the Chamber of Commerce and development interests. Marsh’s supporters are broader-based and include attorneys, business owners, former Mayor Carol Whiteside, the Latino Community Roundtable and the local Democratic Party. He’s also received The Bee’s endorsement, though it wasn’t a ringing one.

Mostly, Routh said, such elections are won or lost on doorsteps when the candidates walk the neighborhoods. They’ll either make a good or bad impression.

“Candidates need to have some level of charisma and communication skills,” Routh said. “But (the mayor race) is going to be a ground game.”

Keith Smith, an assistant political science professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton, agreed. Being a dynamic public speaker is great, but there just aren’t many opportunities to impress big crowds in local elections. Canvassing neighborhoods and chatting with voters in person makes a better impression than what someone might see at a public event or on local cable access.

“Both are needed,” Smith said. “But the more important thing is the ability to do one-on-one. There are so few opportunities in these races where the public is paying attention.”

It is during those personal moments, he said, that a candidate can connect with a voter. And at the local level, that is where elections are won.