Alan Geraci, a lawyer from North County, stood on the corner of North Broadway and West Valley Parkway last Wednesday, preaching to, well, the preachers. The Escondido Democrats had organized a protest against, as the event’s advertising cartoon depicted, the “Rats in our City Hall”. The “rats” are labeled as Mayor Sam Abed, and City Council members Ed Gallo and John Masson, all three of whom are vying for re-election in the upcoming Fall midterms. They face the likes, respectively, of Paul McNamara, Consuelo Martinez, and political newcomer Vanessa Valenzuela. The previously mentioned Alan Geraci is on the ballot for State Assembly.
While billed as a protest, the pejorative and violent connotation the word has earned itself in our current climate was lost, as the small crowd of mostly middle aged people interacted genially amongst themselves and the odd conservative that came up to address them. It took place on the sidewalk outside Grape Day Park and City Hall, where a City Council Meeting was concurrently taking place. A few speakers even got up to address the crowd. The group listened carefully as Geraci explained his personal theory and election strategy, something that was well received by the gathered citizens. His dictum was simple- you are an octopus. In short, that means that you have eight tentacles, or eight potential voters, that you can connect with and encourage to vote. Of course, each of those voters has eight tentacles that they can then reach out to, and so on and so forth. It’s an intuitive, perhaps obvious principle.
Yet I ask that you consider the octopi, the protestors, standing at the corner of the intersection. With cars blowing by, unable to hear the shouts or decipher the posters, the police chatting aimlessly amongst themselves, and the campaign buttons weighing a little too heavy on everyone’s shirt, one could get a sense that each of them in attendance had already wrung every tentacle thin. It is a fact that these people, who consult and participate in every level of the affairs of American self governance, represent a severe minority.
This widespread lack of knowledge and participation in American local government is no secret. Escondido, while anecdotally is a politically active and involved community, doesn’t trend much better than the rest of the nation. 27,482 votes were cast in our last midterm elections. Levy that against our population of around 150,000, and less than 20 percent of people are voting for mayor. 2014’s City Council race between Consuelo and Gallo, a match-up repeating in this cycle, was decided by less than 70 votes. Gallo even said he expects it to come down to around 75 votes again. Given the numbers, Geraci’s speech seemed urgent but, also, somehow wearisome. One had to assume that those who showed up, decked in campaign merchandise, on a Wednesday at 4pm, already grasped the issue of public involvement. They were already busy, perhaps frivolously. discussing the matter of just how to increase registration and turnout.
However, despite the grim numbers, there was an ascending sense of confidence among the protestors, an undeniable feeling that, platforms aside, this was the right thing to be doing. Simply standing there was worth it for its own sake. After all, the evidence was in front of our faces. The park, the police, the very sidewalk they stood on, were all directly relevant to the cause at hand. They know that in the day to day existence of American life, you will ostensibly encounter the tangible effects of your City Council’s decisions far more than the President’s.
In Escondido, under Abed’s administration, over 2 billion dollars in investments have been made. 2 billion should certainly be enough to warrant a level of local pecuniary interest. On the human side, since Abed took over in 2010, he has had ICE Agents deport over 2,700 illegal criminals. The moral question of the policy is not the argument and beside the point. The point is that if you don your campaign t-shirt only after the father of three kids on your street is taken from his family, you are far too late. At a local level, things get very serious, very quickly.
Still, why do so many people ignore local government? I stepped away from the protest to sit in on a City Council Meeting. The meeting room was a generally empty auditorium of sterile lighting and the most banal shades of grey and tan that the human eye can process. The meetings are from 4pm to 10pm on Wednesday’s, and if you’ve got 6 hours free on a weekday, which you don’t, you can sit in on it for yourself. If not, and you haven’t been, then take my word- the entire affair is dull. It is massively, spectacularly dull. Can the meetings compete with the constant stream of sensory engagement in my pocket on social media? Not a chance. In addition, the contrived drama, high volume campaign videos and ads, and the overall appeal to the marketing senses that national elections bring is totally absent here.
A large majority of people have been to the occasional meeting, say if litigation or a controversial or unwelcome housing development came to the front in a way that concerned them immediately. An issue directly relevant or important to one’s life and emotions may, for a minute or two, draw one into the fold. Aside from those loud contentious moments, most people are not going to show up weekly to find out if the new community center is going to be painted white or off-white. The problem is that in between those discussions, a lot of business gets done.
I brought this up to Paul McNamara, candidate for mayor, who I had the fortune of sitting down with this week in a face to face interview. We discussed not only what provoked his call to involvement at a level higher than most, but how to get others to follow suit. He pitched a longer term strategy to get more people, specifically younger voters, engaged. He theorized seizing those periodic and glaring moments of involvement and forming committees of diverse residents to not just act on the specific situation, but the underlying subject it represents. Ideally these citizen committees could drum up active political engagement in the community, or at least in their circles. Perhaps it could work. Perhaps it will just be more echoing octopi.