The Ross Retort
March 19, 2004
Mixed Environmental Message Nixed Prop A
Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote in the 1960’s that “mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth.”
Environmental activists slung so many piles of dirt at friends and potential friends in a ﬂurry of emails during this past campaign season that even the master of meaning, McKluhan, could not discern what it means to be an environmentalist in San Diego, anymore.
And when the murk cleared election night, people who deeply care about environmental issues were handed some sobering news—the voters, uncanny barometers of dysfunction, were not towing the green line like they used to.
Two Sierra Club endorsed incumbents with sketchy environmental credentials will suﬀer a humiliating general election, having failed to garner over 50% of the vote.
The voters did what the Sierra Club would not—hold these oﬃce holders' feet to the ﬁre, at least until November.
And, even more telling, the green gold standard Rural Heritage Initiative (Proposition A), meant to save the back country from sprawl, was buried in its own confusion with only 35% of the voters ﬁnding a reason to vote for it.
One early sign that San Diego’s environmental leadership had muddled its message was displayed on a billboard touting Prop A along the I-5 downtown exit.
Plastered on one of the nations foremost symbols of sprawl and blight was a simple line: “Clean Water. Clean Air. Yes On A.” Nice.
But, McLuhan’s most basic law of communications, that the medium is the message, was apparently lost on the poor souls who thought using this billboard to convey the sentiment was a good idea.
The billboard, expensive and intended for downtown movers and shakers, not voters since relatively few live there, served as a metaphor for what went wrong in a campaign that early on had all the earmarks of a winner---money, endorsements and solid early polling predictions.
Prop A supporters wanted to take regional planning away from the County Board of Supervisors, who they felt was too beholden to special interests to protect the County’s backcountry from sprawl.
This was the clear sentiment of Duncan McFetridge, the initiatives initiator and spokesman, who even his staunchest foes know is a real deal land conservationist. No contradictions, there.
But others publicly involved with the campaign had become themselves a special interest, creatures of downtown, spending more time in the hallways of city hall than in the communities where voters live.
They telegraphed ambiguity, ﬁrst by endorsing incumbents with vague environmental credentials to keep their own seats at the table, and then by oﬀering a cumbersome ballot measure few could understand.
Most to their credit had spent many diﬃcult years working on the County’s 2020 plan, the alternative to Prop. A that attempted to achieve a plan based on negotiation and consensus
between property owners, environmentalists and communities.
No one oﬀered a reasoned explanation for suddenly abandoning that process or for the slings and arrows suﬀered by people who did not jump ship.
The most unambiguous result of election night was the resounding win of underdog Lori Saldana for the Democratic nomination in the 76th Assembly District and consummate outsider Mike Aguirre’s commanding lead for City Attorney against his closest rival, Assistant City Attorney, Leslie Devaney.
Saldana entered the race with unassailable environmental credentials, little money and a whole bunch of integrity against two fund raising titans with umbilical cords to Sacramento.
Aguirre earned a reputation as a public interest attorney ﬁghting for open government.
Both successful candidates have a lot to teach environmentalists who must regain their grip or continue a string of losses.
First and foremost, do not lose touch with what real people want from leaders, which is mostly the unambiguous truth and concern for their neighborhoods. Saldana walked door-to-door unrelentingly. Aguirre never lost touch with the community people who populate his world.
Next, expand the base, do not shrink it. Both candidates did a great job of bringing diverse people on board their train. Environmental leaders have been beating good people away with sticks (including a shameful and thankfully wholly unsuccessful whisper campaign directed against Saldana).
Finally, understand that a seat at the table makes no sense if your advocacy is cheapened by back room deal making. The public is in no mood for any more of it.
From Dr. McKluhan, one more time: “Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.”
Get the message?
March 19, 2004