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Helping Citizens Understand Mendocino County's Debt and Finances

The No on Measure C Campaign

No on C Highway Sign
Highway Sign

The County of Mendocino put Measure C on the November 2010 ballot attempting to secure a one-half percent sales increase for 10 years . County officials said "Measure C is needed to preserve vital public services during these difficult economic times".

They suffered the biggest defeat of a County proposal in decades - a huge repudiation in the polls from across the political spectrum.

This tells the story of how we conceived of the No on C Campaign and why - what we were trying to do, and what we did. Click the section you're interested in or just scroll down the page.

The County's Politics of Denial
The Politics of Reform
Mendocino Voter Analysis - Political Environment
Mendocino Voter Analysis - Voting Blocks
The Vote
Ballot Arguments - the Themes
Communications - Print Ads and Radio

The County's Politics of Denial

For years many of us had warned our County was going deeper and deeper into unfunded retiree benefit debt. In '96 the County borrowed money by selling Pension Bonds because of a $45 million Pension Fund deficit. Six years later they borrowed another $76 million to eliminate a new deficit. And now in the summer of 2010 the Pension Fund deficit was back with a vengence - about $135 million.

That was on top of $85 million still owed on the previous Pension Bonds which are simply restructured unfunded Pension Fund deficits. So the County's total unfunded pension debt was $220 million.

At that moment the Pension Fund was supposed to have $435 million. The County had failed to achieve even half of its own pension funding goal. If its pension funding plan had worked it wouldn't owe a dime.

County officials needed to stop denying the extent of its failure to achieve its own pension funding goals, confront it, figure out what was really wrong - and fix it. Instead - they wanted to increase taxes. Once again they would ignore the core problems and paper it over with more money. That was the last straw. That was "Strike Three"! We immediately organized the No on C campaign.

The Politics of Reform

A number of people had been trying to push our county towards reform - not just of pensions but more importantly of the county's deeply flawed financial management.

For several reasons - one of which may be I'm a life-long Democrat - our efforts in Mendocino County were purposefully "non" or more accurately multi-partisan". Our group of reformers decided to not identify our reform effort with any party or even what we normally think of as "ideology".

But another reason was the practical shape of politics in our County. Bluntly put - if pension reform were identified as "conservative" or "Republican", reform would lose.

Frankly I believe that's true in California as well.

But more fundamentally - the problems that created today's terribly destructive unfunded public retirement debt that must be solved can be understood in terms that unite people across the political spectrum - not divide. And - in order to secure a long-term solution a new broad consensus across the political spectrum must be formed so that no matter who is in office we will not slide back into the mud hole we're in.

We believe people all across the political spectrum would agree that government officials have four fundamental financial duties to the people:

• Tell us the important truths about our government's finances.
• Manage Our Public Money competently and transparently.
• Protect and build our government's financial strength.
• Don't force unfair financial burdens on our kids.

Officials should live up to these duties no matter what they say their ideology is, what political party they belong to, who their political friends and enemies are, what their political goals and ambitions are, or what programs they want to fund.

If the people could have confidence government officials would live by these standards, we'd all be far better off.

These principles unite people across the political spectrum in a "good government reform" coalition.

The fundamental strategy of the No on Measure C Campaign was to covert Measure C in the minds of a majority of voters into a "Vote of No Confidence" regarding the profound failure of Mendocino County officials to live up to these duties to the people.

Mendocino County Voter Analysis

Political Environment

First we reviewed our understanding of politics in general in Mendocino County. Very briefly - I've been tracking votes in our County for years looking for patterns. Here's some of what we've learned.

Very "Liberal-Left" County

In terms of party registration and "normal" voting patterns Mendocino is the 10th most "liberal" or "Left" county in California. Registered Democrats are 47% of total voters and members of 3rd Left parties are 4.7%. If we use the normal assumption that Democrats are a "Left" party and Republicans are "Right" then if Left Party members show up for elections and vote together they win.

Very Diverse Ideological Political Discourse

Our County's "political dialogue" may be the most ideologically diverse in California.

We have the highest portion of 3rd party registered voters (both Right and Left) relative to the total of Democrats and Republicans in the state. For every 10 Democrats there is one 3rd Left party member (mostly Greens). For every 5 Republicans there is one 3rd Right party member (mostly American Independents). There are almost as many 3rd Right party members as members of 3rd Left parties.

San Francisco has the highest percentage of voters who do not register as part of any party - over 1/3. In the next 7 counties a little less than 1/3 are not registered as members of any political party. Mendocino is one of these.

This configuration produces a wider range of ideological political dialogue than normal in California. This sometimes makes the County's politics appear to be significantly outside of the "California mainstream".

However - even though Mendocino has more people committed to beliefs either to the left of Democrats or the right of Republicans (or in a left or right Libertarian direction) the fact remains that a strong majority of people identify themselves as either Democrats or Republicans.

Big Rugged County - Not Many People

Another important aspect of politics in Mendocino County is we are a small population spread out over a very large area. We have 90,000 people (about 48,000 registered voters) living in a County more than twice the size of the smallest state in the union - Rhode Island that has over 1 million residents.

The largest concentration of residents live in the contiguous Ukiah and Redwood Valleys - about 30,000. The rest are highly dispersed in various population pockets around this very mountainous county.

We are a very small media market. Local media don't have anywhere near the capacity for political reporting and analysis.

Political influence in Mendocino County is as "spread out" as the population.

Lack of Racial-Ethnic Politics

A simple and powerful political fact is that Mendocino County is far less racially diverse than many other parts of California. There are very few Asian-Americans or Blacks here. Strong political organizations anchored in those communities don't exist in Mendocino County politics.

We have a higher Native American population than all but a handful of other California counties. But for a variety of reasons they aren't highly active in many aspects of the political dialogue in the County - although there are some very notable exceptions.

We have a large Hispanic community - mostly immigrants from Mexico who came here in the last 30 years for work in agriculture and service industries. This community has not been highly visible in County politics - again with some very notable exceptions. However a large and influential younger generation will play a significant political role in the future. But not yet.

Race and ethnicity do not directly affect local politics anywhere near as much as in many other California counties. Politics here is still mostly practiced by White people.

Standard Elections and Variations

In Presidential and most Gubernatorial elections Left candidates and measures get about 63% of the vote. Right candidates get 37%. For "normal" elections that's how this County votes.

But sometimes issues or candidates shift this pattern. Analyzing these deviations from the norm allows us to understand where the "fault lines" are within these normal voting blocks that can cause significantly different electoral results.

I won't describe our analysis of past elections and how we defined our County's voting blocks - too much material. But as a part of that process we identified a number of basic voting blocks and thought through how they would tend to relate to Measure C.

Voting Blocks and Measure C

We then defined the number and types of voters across the political spectrum who had to vote No to defeat Measure C.

I believe the core concept we established in the No on C campaign is the same as what must happen in the state as a whole - about half of normal "Left" voters must join most "Right" voters in a "Good Government Reform Coalition" that is not partisan - not built on standard party ideology and certainly not defined by political parties - but reflects agreement on the four financial duties of government officials defined above.

Measure C's Automatic Supporters

We assumed most (not all) government employees and retirees, their families and close associates would support C because they feared significant County staff cuts would occur if C didn't pass. Many in the Left are so strongly committed to their worldview that they simply can't see irrefutable evidence of severe official mismanagement of Our Public Money especially by public officials they support. (I write this as a life-long Democrat.) Finally just about all the Left's "political partisan class" would support it. These would be about 25% of the vote.

The leaders of the Yes on C Campaign were SEIU and several County officials. They outspent the No Campaign more than $2 to $1. All major County officials supported Measure C. We know several were privately very uncomfortable to do so but had to do it for "the team".

Measure C's Automatic Opponents

The "Firm Right" would nearly unanimously oppose C - about 25% of the vote. Just as many on the Left would reflexively support Measure C - many on the Right would reflexively oppose it. Much of this opposition arises from the usual "no new taxes" position of many on the Right.

The Swing Voters - the Battleground

Two large groups would decide the issue. Moderates who are willing to listen to arguments and evidence "from the other side" and who occasionally break the normal "Left - Right" mold are also about 25% of the vote.

But the most interesting group in this strategic context in many ways is the part of the Left who are capable of seeing that government can be more interested in serving itself than in serving the people - and don't like it. Unlike others on the Left this realization doesn't clash with their basic worldview or self-interest. It isn't heresy to think government officials and public union leaders can be more driven by short-term political ambition and goals than the long-term interests of the people - or that they may simply be incompetent to boot. These folks are also about 25% of Mendocino County's electorate.

The Goal

We concluded our main electoral goal was to help at least half of these two groups conclude to vote No on C while maintaining the Right's solid opposition to C as well. If that could happen No would be defeated.

But the absolutely important thing about this goal is that voters who joined this winning coalition had to see that normal ideology wasn't relevant. This wasn't about "Left" or "Right" .

It's about the financial duties government officials have to the people that really have nothing to do with "Left" or "Right". It's really more of a constitutional issue. What should all citizens expect from government regardless of ideology? It's like "Free Speech", the "Right to Assemble", the other fundamental expectations we should all have about government.

The two "swing vote" groups needed to see that the County's debt is dangerous and the County irresponsibly created most of this debt. They needed to see this proves that County officials failed to live up to their four financial duties to the people.

They needed to see the arguments of the Yes on C folks that the County is simply a victim of the bad economy and the 1%ers on Wall Street is bogus and self-serving. Not necessarily that Wall Street did nothing wrong - but that much of the County's financial crisis is of its own making.

HOWEVER and this was very important - that part of the Left in particular would not vote No based on "normal Conservative arguments" or if a No vote was considered proof conservatives have been - well - "right" all along.

The No Campaign needed to be seen for what it is - a coalition of people who strongly disagree among themselves on the role and size of government, but who agree the County badly needs "good government reform" and that there should be no discussion of new taxes until the County has irrevocably committed itself to reform.

One of the most difficult aspects of this balancing act is that many moderates and some conservatives would support a temporary tax increase IF AND ONLY IF it is part of a believable reform and restructuring and the County demonstrates it's absolutely necessary to maintain certain services. Most Conservatives oppose more taxes period.

So we had to agree that we might have a "fight" about that in the future - IF the County ever gets around to getting serious about reform. But today we agree - GOOD GOVERNMENT REFORM FIRST - ONLY THEN WILL WE TALK ABOUT TAXES.

All this was our Coalition's path to defeat Measure C.

The Vote

Jumping ahead 3 months - here's what happened.

Mendocino Voting Blocks and the Measure C Vote

The first row in the graph on the left is the normal Left - Right vote in the "big" elections - Presidential, etc. The second is party registration. Third is our (really much too-simplistic) view of "voting blocks".

The bottom two rows are the results of 2 items on the November 2010 ballot in Mendocino County - Governor and Measure C. The Gubernatorial vote was basically the "normal" Left-Right proportion with slightly more than normal going to Jerry Brown.

But Measure C lost 30% yes - 70% no. It was the largest loss of a County-sponsored ballot measure in many decades. AND - over half the people who voted for Brown voted against Measure C. Two out of three swing voters voted NO!

There were 17 local sales tax increase measures across California on the November 2010 ballot. The graph on the right shows 11 passed and 6 failed. By far the largest margin was Mendocino - way more than 2 to 1. Mendocino was almost the most "liberal" constituency among the 17 and C was resoundingly defeated.

Ballot Arguments

Click to see the official ballot arguments prepared by both sides. These are the themes of each campaign.

Those who signed the No on C arguments were well-known in Mendocino County. By design they ranged from "way left" to "way right" politically. These are very well-known people in County politics and many people would never have imagined they would join together on any political issue. Right off the bat the notion this was just another iteration of the well known left-right battle was blown sky high.


We participated in a number of debates arranged by various civic and political groups. Numerous letters to the editor were published. Presentations were given to civic groups. We produced and distributed hundreds of large highway signs, smaller yard signs, and "window" signs".

Below are examples of print ads mostly in newspapers and radio spots.

No on C Ads

In general the communication strategy was to "make a big splash" early in the campaign with the main theme - including the implicit message that the opposition is a coalition of people who often disagree but agree on the need for reform.

Then we made print ads smaller and radio spots shorter. We also focused on specific "secondary" issues. Not that they weren't important, but they a) weren't our main point, and b) by their nature might be more of interest to specific segments of the public (seniors, merchants, the kids).

Finally as people started to send mail-in ballots and undecided voters were starting to pay attention we cranked up the schedule and made the ads larger and longer again. Mostly we returned to our main theme - the non-partisan demand for "good government reform", but we also addressed a few specific issues that had been raised by the "Yes" campaign and gave our best argument specifically to undecided voters.

These are not all the ads or radio spots - but they show what we were saying to the people. Click to see or hear.

Print Ads LARGE
Undecided Democrats - Final
Most Indebted
Won't Save
Final Pitch

Click for All
Radio Spots 60 Seconds
Pension Tax
Seniors-Working Families
Burden on Youth
Most Indebted
30 Seconds
Click to Hear 4 spots

To play the radio spots your system has to download the audio file and play it with an audio program resident on your computer. Not everyone will be able to do this.

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