My friend Tommy (not his real name) is the first to describe himself as “not a political animal”. While this is probably true, he’s an astute observer of human nature and a great—and funny—storyteller. Last week he happened to tell what he thought of as just another funny story to mutual friends who DO follow politics.
They quickly realized that what he was describing as an odd call he’d gotten in early May was actually a push poll on behalf of Elizabeth Echols, one of the candidates for State Assembly in District 15, where I live.
So what’s a push poll, for all the rest of us who aren’t political animals?
As always, ask Wikipedia.
“A push poll is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll…. a form of telemarketing-based propaganda and rumor mongering, masquerading as a poll. Push polls may rely on innuendo or knowledge gleaned from opposition research on an opponent….The main advantage of push polls is that they are an effective way of maligning an opponent ("pushing" voters towards a predetermined point of view) while avoiding direct responsibility for the distorted or false information suggested (but not directly alleged) in the push poll.”
Tommy took notes as he talked to the caller, hoping to collect information which would help him to decide whom to vote for. Our mutual friends insisted that he tell me the story. Here’s what he said in an email:
“The call was on the evening of May 9th. The female surveyor seemed utterly bored and discouraged. Her opening question was: Are you '‘interested in taking a 17 minute survey concerning the upcoming election?' "She had me laughing already! Who would say yes? Me of course!A funny story, sure. At least “funny peculiar”, if not altogether “funny ha-ha”.
"The survey started out fair sounding and then progressed to odd and inconsistent and narrow.
"It started with whether I intended to vote...whether I thought Jerry Brown was leading the state in 'the right direction', if I was familiar with the candidates running for State Assembly. "She listed them all and asked if I had decided who I would vote for..
I felt like a kid caught unprepared on pop quiz day - I told her so…and she laughed.
"She asked if the support of the following people would influence my choice..
"She listed a bunch of names I didn't recognize and some I did. I reacted to the mention of Nancy Skinner, Tom Bates and Loni Hancock. I was asked if particular statements supporting the candidates would encourage me to support or discourage my support of specific candidates.
"I found the statements uneven … curious.
"There was a lot more info about SOME of the candidates and less about others .
The survey seemed to be focusing on Tony Thurmond, Elizabeth Echols, Clarence Hunt and Sam Kang.
"She asked me to respond to the efficacy of statements opposing the candidates…something like, “does this statement strongly discourage, somewhat discourage, not affect, or don't have an opinion ...'
"Now things got really uneven, lots of [negative] statements about Tony Thurmond, more than anyone else:
" 'Tony Thurmond will raise your parcel taxes'…Tony Thurmond 'votes against the working man, is against jobs ‘ and is against the economy. ( I wrote down 'against economy' but she said something different , like 'against revitalizing local economies'. She did say this was in reference to his opposition to Chevron refinery expansion. ..I thought this encouraged me to vote for him, not discouraged me!)
And about the others:
"Clarence Hunt sues first and asks questions later, is more likely to sue and litigate than any other candidate. ( I was seriously puzzled by this statement.) Clarence Hunt is a New Orleans Republican. Sam Kang has no experience and is a newcomer to politics. Sam Kang is in the pocket of the auto insurance industry.'
But on the other hand: ‘Elizabeth Echols is a hard worker .’ ‘Elizabeth Echols is a true patriot.’ (I thought it was odd to end with this statement).
I told her that the survey definitely informed me and made me think. She seemed genuinely amused… I'd done my good deed for the day, I'd made someone laugh.”
Hearing it, I realized I hadn’t been paying nearly enough attention to the upcoming election. There’s a primary on June 3 where two candidates will be selected to run in the newly minted Assembly District 15, which is what Tommy’s caller was talking about. The vote-by-mail ballots have already gone out. And yet I, who have always considered myself a political animal, read at least two newspapers every day and through the Planet am on hundreds of email lists, knew next to nothing about this Elizabeth Echols.
Tony Thurmond, one of the disparaged candidates in the “poll”, has sent me or the Planet mailboxes a lot of email in the last couple of years, and he's often appeared in the Contra Costa Times, so I think I know a lot about him. He’s youngish, African American, has held various local offices in the Richmond area, and has been endorsed by a number of people I respect, notably Congressman George Miller and Kamala Harris. I’ve even met him, at a friend’s house party, where he impressed me as intelligent, straightforward and down to earth. I think I gave him a small contribution for the primary, on the theory that he certainly deserves to be one of the top two.
What you might not know is that under the new rules we’ll end up selecting two candidates in June, though we can only vote for one. The top two finishers in June will face each other in November, regardless of party.
In this district, with very occasional exceptions, they’re all Democrats. It used to be that “the Democratic candidate” was ostensibly chosen in a spring primary with a very low voter turnout, but actually was pre-selected by party honchos much earlier and was guaranteed to win in November.
That’s how the torch in the Berkeley area was passed by then-Assemblyman Tom Bates to his legislative assistant Dion Aroner, then to his wife Loni Hancock, then to their protégée Nancy Skinner. The Oakland or Richmond percentage in the district, despite boundary variations, has always been low enough that Berkeley ruled.
Trying to play catch up, I took a look in my neglected snail mailbox and discovered a starting point, a glossy large two-sided mailer featuring Ms. Echols. Two things caught my eye: “the ONLY candidate endorsed by the California Democratic Party” and a long list of endorsers including the East Bay Express.
It seemed early for the Express to be endorsing for a race that ended in November, so I checked their site. They had a good piece on the race just a couple of days ago, where I learned that Echols, who has never before run for or held public office, is nonetheless the anointed candidate of the Bates/Hancock apparatus. That also explains “endorsed by the California Democratic Party”. I’m told by insiders that the local party—dare I call it a machine?—has the power to endorse a candidate, and their choice is almost never challenged by the state party,
Elsewhere on the site I learned that the Express in an unsigned editorial had endorsed BOTH Echols and Thurmond, hoping to wait until the November election to choose between them. And it turns out that a lot of the “endorsements” at this point have the same fudge factor: joint endorsements by people or organizations that prefer to play it coy for now. So be sure to take those glossy mailers with more than a grain of salt--don't use the endorsements as your guide.
So, again, who is Elizabeth Echols? Her own website revealed just a bit more significant information. She has the usual potpourri of low-level political appointments and high-minded ineffectual non-profits in her resume, but what caught my eye is that she’s a former Google executive, “Director of Policy”, whatever that might mean.
Verbatim: “Elizabeth played a vital role in transitioning California’s economy into the digital age when she served as Director of Policy at Google from 2004-2008. At Google, she developed and managed the global e-commerce and content policy framework for consumer and business products.”
Does that mean lobbying, or what? You tell me.
Another small oddity is that there’s a big picture of Elizabeth and her husband “Parviz” at the top of her bio page. Nowhere on the site is his last name mentioned. A quick bit of web search tells me that he’s Parviz Boozarpour, an ordinary Farsi name, nothing to be ashamed of. The property records reveal that someone used the name "Elizabeh Boozarpour" when buying a house in the Oakland Hills at one point. As a woman who’s used both her birth name and her husband’s name in various job situations over the years myself, I’m not one to criticize, but I do think it’s odd.
Otherwise, I haven't yet been able to figure out who she might be. The site is no help at all.
The bottom line for me, anyhow: I’m not going to be comfortable voting for someone who’s never held public office to join the California Assembly. Think Meg and Carly—public office is not a good choice for a second career for middle-aged female high tech dropouts who've never had to answer to an outraged voter. Again, I say this knowing that I am one myself.
And I really don’t like push polls. It was a push poll, a new invention at the time, that first catapulted Richard Nixon into public office, a push poll that implied that Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Communist, in the days when that was the kiss of death. For this alone, I’d have a hard time voting for any candidate who used one.
I’d say, therefore, anyone but Echols. Tony Thurmond seems just fine to me, and I plan to vote for him on June 3.