Monday, November 11, 2013

Political Cues and Stealth Campaigns, or "How we elected a complete wackaloon to the Houston Community College Board of Trustees"

And just when I thought that local Houston elections had gone reasonably well in the "let's not embarrass ourselves in front of the country" metric,  I find out that Dave Wilson, a noted anti-LGBT activist, busybody and general slime ball who makes a living as an infected boil on the body politic, beat a respected incumbent on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees. Great.

Via the ever-handy Charles Kuffner  (criticizing the Houston Chronicle's coverage):
So a 24-year incumbent gets ousted in a race decided by 26 votes, and what do we learn about his victorious opponent? Just that he’s a “small-business owner”. Not that he’s a notorious, longtime anti-gay activist who ran against Mayor Parker in 2011 and is currently embroiled in a legal battle against the Harris County Democratic Party over his attempts to run for County Commissioner while claiming his business address as his residence. Not the fact that he meddled in the HCC 1 race by sending one of his patented attack mailers, sliming Zeph Capo and Kevin Hoffman for being gay. Not the fact that the mail he sent on his own behalf would make you think he himself was African-American, which he is not. Just, you know, a “small-business owner”. Nothing to see here, folks.

 Incidentally, Kuffner entitled his post "Why Stealth Campaigns can Work," which is a great statement about the political science behind how Wilson got elected.

In crowded, low-profile local races on ballots with lots of items, information is at a premium. Voters don't have time to extensively investigate every race, so they rely on cues. (Political Party is an example). What Wilson did was pretend he was black to get a heavily African-American community to identify with him. In effect, he scrambled the cue to voters in order to mislead them.

It's the same principal that helped unscrupulous petition gathers get Michigan's notorious 2006 Proposition 2, the so-called "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" that banned affirmative action, on the ballot. Canvassers would go door-to-door in African American neighborhoods and tell them to sign up to support civil rights.

It's also the same reason why "Right-to-Work" or "Freedom-to-Work" campaigns are so lethal. Their proponents cloak anti-worker union-busting laws in pro-worker language to camouflage their true intent.

Guess I won't be teaching at HCC anytime soon. 

And Kuffner's criticism of the Chronicle here is spot on. By not even mentioning Wilson's past or tactics and identifying him merely as a "small business owner" they actively aid his deception. Of course, it's often tough for reporters -- especially new ones, and I've been there -- to know the history of local politicians, but some one in the editorial chain should have caught this one.

For more on cues, how voters use them and how political operatives use false rhetoric to hide them, check out the work of political scientists Arthur Lupia and Matt McCubbins. Or read George Orwell.

On the bright side,  Wilson has never claimed to be Santa Claus. Clearing that bar means he's at least marginally better than at least one congressman I could name.

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