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Friday, September 30, 2005
A Puzzling LeBaron Campaign Strategy

Today a flyer - basically a large postcard - from the Shirl LeBaron mayoral campaign hit the mailboxes. On one side is a rather unflattering external shot of the old Harrington School, with the question, "Would you spend $2.7 million dollars of taxpayers' funds on this building?" (In fact, my personal answer is, yes, I would, maybe not before I finished the parks, but at least before I spent several million more on the Recreation Center.)

Across the top of the other side is the declaration, "Councilman LeBaron would not, he did not!" Three rather awkwardly written, painfully punctuated short paragraphs follow, explaining that his opponents proposed exactly that, but LeBaron voted NO -- not "no" or "No" or "NO," but "NO" -- "because it did not make sense to spend nearly half of American Fork's redevelopment funds for the Harrington School and neglect the rest of the city."

Once again, as he did last night, he has essentially affirmed that he does not believe a vibrant downtown is of value to the city as a whole. But for this handicap, he, with his considerable political skills and intellect, could put forward a specific, detailed, workable plan of his own for downtown revitalization and sell it persistently. He would own the issue. So far he hasn't done that.

At least he's not sitting in an office or a meeting telling people whatever they want to hear, then later, when he's in the back room and out of the public eye, killing things he had pretended to support.

There is room for disagreement about the Harrington and downtown generally, and we need more intelligent, systematic discussion than we have had, so far. But at this exact moment I'm more interested in the campaign strategy than in the issue itself. (It's the sometime campaign manager in me.)

The flurry of phone calls to the Rodeback household which immediately followed the flyer's arrival in mailboxes around the city Friday is by no means a scientific sample. Those who share LeBaron's view would be unlikely to call, and the many who are indifferent would be even less likely to call. So the afternoon's telecommunications are at best anecdotal evidence. Extrapolating on them would be foolhardy, so I won't.

I don't have any polling data of my own; I'm not aware that Councilman LeBaron does, either. He might; it's not prohibitively difficult to do such polling in a local race. But in the absence of such data, here are some thoughts, based very slightly on the anecdotal evidence, but mostly on gut instinct.

First, though hisopponents, Messrs. Brown and Thompson, are running this fall at least in part because they want the City finally to do something serious with downtown, so far they have not framed the issue clearly enough and delivered the message effectively enough to make it a high-profile issue in the campaign. With this mailer, Councilman LeBaron has done that for them, to some degree. True, the message communicated is his version of his own heroic opposition to downtown revitalization, combined with his own spin on his opponents' views and proposals. But politically LeBaron's is probably the weaker position, a harder thing to sell to the voters. So you'd think he might want to focus mostly on other large issues, including several where he is clearly in a position of strength. Instead, he just put their issue front and center for them. I don't see how this can help him.

Second, at the same time he has galvanized his opponents' support in a way that his opponents' campaigns have partly failed to do, so far. I suspect that much of Brown's and Thompson's support has been fairly soft, until now. Now some of it is firmer, including the support of some who could fairly be called opinion leaders in their neighborhoods, if not in the city at large. At the same time, he has probably lost more of his own soft supporters than he has gained of others'. A lot of city residents went to school at the Harrington, remember it fondly, have lots of friends, and see it (some consciously, some instinctively) as one of the city's few tangible links to what is best in American Fork's history. I don't see how increasing their motivation to oppose him helps LeBaron's electoral prospects in November.

He really doesn't have to worry about the primary; he'll be one of the top two on Tuesday. He should at this point be playing for the general election - which means this is probably only his second strongest mailer, in his or an advisor's estimation. If I were he, I would save the best one for the same time next month. If he's smart, it will be a major issue on which his strengths are clear. If he's not, it might be some silly gossip about how Mr. Thompson is and will be a puppet of Mr. Gunther. (One of the sharper observers around responds to this silly rumor by noting that if Gunther were really some sort of a dark puppet master, we'd already have a great downtown. My own response is: Is that all you can say against Thompson, something anyone who knows him would never believe?)

Perhaps LeBaron wants to bury the downtown issue now and move on to other, bigger things, and he doesn't think he needs the support of the voters he just drove to his opponents. He could be right; so far, his opponents haven't been particularly inspiring. (So why help them?)

Perhaps he thinks downtown is a bigger issue in this election than I think it is, and he wants to strike first because he thinks he's in a weaker position and needs the momentum. If he sets the terms of the discussion, he may minimize the damage to him.

Perhaps he misreads his opponents and their voter appeal, and thinks that if he can take this issue from them, they won't have anything left. If he thinks this, he's wrong. As far as I can tell, if LeBaron loses in November, it will not be over downtown. It will be over City finances and the general, overwhelming mistrust with which many City residents regard the current administration, with which he is associated. He's less vulnerable to anti-incumbent sentiment than a genuine incumbent mayor would be, and I still don't think anti-incumbent fervor is enough to throw this year's election all by itself - but the more he fans the flames, the more likely I am to be wrong about this one.

LeBaron has the platform, the campaign experience, and the political savvy to win this race in a rout, with or without downtown on the table, unless an opponent runs a superb campaign. (That hasn't happened yet. It still could.) But this assumes that the front-runner puts his strong points clearly and persistently forward and doesn't spend too much time and money advancing his opponents' campaigns.

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