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Sticky Voting

Copyright © 2007 by Dave Badtke

Not Published in the Benicia Herald on Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sometimes voting isn't much fun because the stuff that sticks isn't worth remembering or, even worse, leads to bad public policy. By stickiness I'm talking here about Malcolm Gladwell's concept in his best-selling The Tipping Point. According to Gladwell, a phrase, an idea, a piece of trivia sticks in your mind when it grabs your brain with the strength of superglue and won't let go no matter how hard you shake your head from side to side.

If you're of a certain age like me, you can't say, "I like . . .," without completing the phrase with "Ike," a slogan used during General Dwight Eisenhower's successful presidential campaign. Even though I never smoked, "Winston tastes good . . ." is a phrase I can't think of without adding, "like a cigarette should."

Clearly, we're slaves to Gladwell's stickiness factor: things that stick seem to stay with us longer than we'd like to admit, maybe the entirety of our lives. And while some sticky slogans are benign, maybe even helpful -- "Got . . . ," which you probably completed with "milk?", comes to mind -- others are downright nasty in their implications.

The sticky phrase "Death Taxes," the label assigned by Republicans to estate taxes created to keep wealthy families from becoming feudal monarchies sans crown, seems to have convinced many that such taxes are bad because they apply to them.  After all, we all die, and I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have thought it too horrible for his rub to include the nightmare visit of an IRS agent to our still-warm graves: "To die, to sleep . . .  To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub."

And did we know when we first heard "Compassionate Conservatism" that it would become an oxymoronic campaign to dramatically increase the national debt without spending more on education, health care, infrastructure and programs to help the less advantaged become full members of society? No, I imagine you, like me, were thinking that this sticky slogan meant a big federal hug and a secure savings account with a conservative interest rate that would benefit us, our children and grandchildren.

Now that it's time to vote again, we need to beware of sticky slogans that might lead to bad public policy. Take for instance Scott Strawbridge's statement in the Solano County Registrar of Voters Pamphlet: "Keep it Simple! Keep it Focused! Keep it Positive! Keep it in Benicia!" Whether you vote for Strawbridge or you don't, beware of this catchy jingle. My guess is that it has a good chance of sticking, especially since the other candidates for City Council aren't offering much in the way of stickiness competition.

Mike Ioakimedes, who has a B.A. in history from St. Mary's College -- I admit to being partial to history majors -- talks about listening to others, about the home he restored, about the business he has run, about the children he has raised in Benicia. And then he says that he would "focus the discussion on what Benicians are hopeful for rather than what some may be frightened of." This is positive, not negative, which may be good for Benicia, but good luck getting this message to stick.

 Tom Campbell is an orthodontist with more degrees in chemistry, medicine, business and law -- I'm also partial to someone who values education -- than there are crooked teeth in Benicia. But again I'm hard-pressed to find a sticky phrase in his message. Campbell is a Gladwell maven, the kind of person who knows a lot about budgets and who likes to share information. As he states, "During the four years I served on the City Council, Benicia had balanced budgets every year. In the two years since my term expired, Benicia has gone from having balanced budgets to now almost million-dollar deficits; from being the example of open government to ignoring residents' calls for campaign reform." While I'd rather have open government focused on balanced budgets and campaign reform, I'm not finding in these words any song I can sing, no matter how hard I hum a few bars now, looking for something to top the pop charts.

Last week I wrote about Elizabeth Patterson, who's running for Mayor and who's great, but exactly how do you set to music a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning, City Council experience, and decades of involvement in local and regional planning and the environment? I know Patterson was critical to the formulation of the General Plan, but that's not a script we might turn into a musical with box-office appeal. She says, "on council, I've promoted open, accessible and clean government, sustainable economic development, clean water and air, and adherence to the general plan's vision for a small, historic town with safe streets. As Mayor I will continue to champion these goals." I like this, but its stickiness is hard to find.

Which brings me back to Scott W. Strawgridge's "Keep it Simple! Keep it Focused! Keep it Positive! Keep it in Benicia!" This has a rhythm, a beat. I can't see it as a jazz riff, but it definitely has got feet. It's got the kind of stickiness that can compete with gum on the sole of your shoe. But notice what this sticky slogan suggests.

If someone tells you, "Keep it Simple!", he may be telling you that your questions are overly complicating something that would work just fine if you'd mind your own business.

If someone tells you, "Keep it Focused!", he may be telling you that you're raising superfluous, irrelevant questions, and you shouldn't be surprised if, while he appears to be listening, he's actually hoping you'll be sick when next there's a vote.

If someone tells you, "Keep it Positive!", he may be telling you that what you believe is negative because it's different from what he believes. And wouldn't it be grand if we could all just get along and agree on progress?

If someone tells you, "Keep it in Benicia!", he may be saying, under his breath, that we must make it happen in Benicia no matter the cost to services, traffic and the environment.

Clearly, "Keep it Simple! Keep it Focused! Keep it Positive! Keep it in Benicia!" is the stickiest of slogans. None of the other candidates have anything so memorable. But is this slogan good public policy?
Gum stuck to shoe
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Dave Badtke, who teaches English at Solano College and Astronomy at College of Alameda, can be contacted at Dave@Badtke.com. Find his blog at Badtke.com and copies of this and older columns at QCounty.com.