Valley Observer

After the Elections. Who was kicked out of bed and who wasn’t.

Across the nation, Nov. 7 was a grand day for Democrats. For Republicans, not so much. But the local story was quite different: The GOP fought off its only two serious valley challenges — although in one of them, the incumbent nearly caused her own demise. Each race was sullied by virulent campaign rhetoric, yet also had its fascinating aspects. And of course it was the nonpartisan municipal contests that generated much of the desert’s election-night political excitement. Insofar as a common theme marked the valley results, whether partisan or nonpartisan, it was that incumbents generally won.

One such — albeit barely — was 80th District Republican state Assembly-woman Bonnie Garcia. The 80th was redrawn post-Census 2000 to include the Democratic parts of the Coachella Valley and all of heavily Democratic Imperial County. It was supposed to become a safely Democratic seat, but the dynamic Ms. Garcia won it in a squeaker in 2002 and was re-elected by a land-slide two years later. She seemed set for a repeat in 2006. After noting that Democratic challenger Steve Clute’s “desperately underfunded campaign was all but invisible,” November’s Observer (written to meet our late September deadline) predicted that she would “win re-election handily.” Events soon rendered that comment obsolete. 

While visiting La Quinta High School on Oct. 10, Ms. Garcia reportedly answered a student query about her friend Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by saying, “I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.” Oops! This flip vulgarity galvanized the Democratic opposition. Brushing aside her apologies, they suddenly saw a chance to pick up a seat by focusing on the “bed” remark. The party and other statewide sources poured a million dollars-plus into the Clute effort, thereby funding the campaign’s final three weeks of nonstop slash-and-burn attacks. (“She talks dirty to kids,” explained one true believer.) It almost worked.

The election-night count put Ms. Garcia 381 votes behind in the Coachella Valley (Riverside County), but ahead by 1,514 votes in Imperial County, for a net 1,133-votelead. She claimed victory; Mr. Clute not unreasonably declined to concede. He reversed himself two weeks later when the additional absentee-vote counts were announced. Ms. Garcia’s lead had swelled to an insurmountable 2,200 total, including a winning margin of 688 in the valley. And, so, bloodied but still feisty, she now begins her final assembly term. It is unclear whether this election experience will help or hinder any ambition she may have to succeed her mentor, GOP state Sen. Jim Battin, when he is termed out of his 37th District seat in two years.    

Meanwhile, one-time state legislator Clute reverts to semi-obscurity, having failed (again) to return himself to Sacramento. One of November’s oddities was that this man, who has spent the last dozen years losing comeback attempts, seemed to be almost a cipher in his own campaign, a shadow figure leaving no identifiable mark. Where was his personal following? Where were the Clute roadies? They didn’t (don’t) exist.

By way of contrast, Democrat David Roth challenged Republican U.S. Rep. Mary Bono in the 45th Congressional District election and lost by a mile. Yet Mr. Roth generated scads of enthused desert supporters. Some of those actually believed he could win. He couldn’t, of course. Ms. Bono is too well liked and, even more crucially, her district is much too Republican. While her usual victory margin was slightly reduced (as predicted) in this Democratic year, she still was swept back into office with a 21-point spread.

Frankly, we had expected the Roth campaign to reach out to independents and moderate Republicans. How else can a Democrat hope to win a district like the 45th? But instead, his imported campaign managers pitched their message pretty much exclusively to orthodox political liberals. So he spent his time preaching to the choir, and the choir loved him. But, by themselves, choirs don’t win elections. It made us wonder whether this was an experiment, a test to see what kind of congressional candidate Mr. Roth makes. If so and if he passed the test, as he surely did, no one could reasonably blame him if he chose to relocate to a genuinely winnable district.

November’s municipal election results mattered most in their host cities, naturally, but some of them involved twists that can resonate with outsiders, too. For instance, Cathedral City citizens remain fiercely anti-tax: They overwhelmingly rejected Measure Q, a council-referred city sales tax proposal. Yet they rewarded Mayor Kathy DeRosa, who had supported the tax, with a landslide victory over two opponents (one of them a former mayor and sales-tax foe). They also easily re-elected two council members — giving Chuck Vasquez, who backed the tax, a significantly larger plurality than they gave Paul Marchand, who opposed it. Go figure.

In Indian Wells, incumbent Council-man Ed Monarch topped the vote count, and Patrick Mullany won the open council seat. But voters’ adoption (by 82.5 percent!) of Measure P is of special interest. This is a trailblazing transient occupancy tax ordinance designed to fit the hot new hotel industry category of condominium (or condo) hotels. Among other topics, it specifically addresses owner-investors who choose to occupy their own units for more than 60 days in any given year — a category not covered by existing TOT ordinances. Given valley cities’ dependence on bed tax revenue and the imminence of condo-hotel developments here, Measure P will likely serve as model (starting point) legislation for all.

To us, Palm Desert provided the valley’s most interesting municipal election — partly because it illustrates that city’s unusual civic culture and partly because it shows this culture starting to break apart. The two incumbents up for re-election, Councilwoman Jean Benson and Mayor Jim Ferguson, faced only token opposition and won by typically mammoth pluralities. With one fairly recent exception (a truly singular case), by our calculation the last time any Palm Desert incumbent lost a re-election bid was in 1980. That’s 26 years … Wow! They always win, they serve forever, they govern superbly, and they spend very little on campaigning. (This time around, Ms. Benson spent less than $200.) 

But November’s real battle there was for the remaining two years of a vacated council term. The two candidates, Sabby Jonathan and Cindy Finerty, didn’t seriously differ on policies; both had long local histories and impressive public ser-vice records, particularly Mr. Jonathan. Their campaigns were intense, occasionally testy, and by Palm Desert norms hugely expensive: probably $50,000-$80,000 each when final reports are filed. The race seemed to be a dead heat, but it ended in a 13-point Finerty victory. All sides agree that the sitting council members’ strong endorsement of her was the deciding factor.

Only Ms. Benson kept to the traditional standard: silence. Historically, Palm Desert’s elected officials never issued public endorsements, regardless of their private views. That would conflict with council collegiality, a rigorously practiced concept of which they’ve always been very proud. But they were angry with Mr. Jonathan and were will-ing to break their own rules to beat him. It doesn’t augur well. Neither does the cost of last fall’s municipal campaigns. Yet how can Palm Desert expect to remain exempt from this contemporary bane? The city is now so big that only long-serving incumbents can rely on reputation alone to win the day.  

And so, Nov. 7 saw Palm Desert politics beginning to resemble those of other cities. They call this normality, and there are worse fates. Did press endorsements make a difference? It’s always big news when newspapers announce their pre-election choices among competing candidates and ballot-measure arguments. Yet post-election analyses seldom attempt to gauge their impact. Well, let’s change that. Let’s compare a few locally relevant editorial endorsements to the actual voting results on Nov. 7.

Like most newspapers, The Desert Sun compiled a mixed record. Its editorial board tended to support incumbents, which is usually a fairly safe bet. In November, that worked for the paper’s gubernatorial, congressional, and legislative picks, and for municipal contests geographically close to its Palm Springs HQ. But the farther east one went in the valley, the less consistently Sun backing served as a predictor of actual winners and losers. This was especially true in Coachella, where two incumbent councilmen, one a mayoral candidate and both Sun-endorsed, were beaten decisively. Likewise, Palm Desert and Indian Wells voters ignored the newspaper’s anointees and elected rival candidates to fill one open council seat in each city.

On the other hand, the support-incumbents policy accurately foretold the outcomes in East Valley Indio and La Quinta; ditto West Valley Cathedral City. And the Sun backed what turned out to be the winning side for 12 of the 13 state ballot measures, an in-touch-with-the-voters performance significantly more impressive than that demonstrated by the mighty Los Angeles Times. In this respect, the Sun also edged The Press-Enterprise. (Inland Empire voters followed the P-E’s take on local partisan contests, but spurned it on two state measures.)

All of which raises the question: Do editorial pronouncements about candidates/issues truly affect desert election results?  We think not, or at least not by much. Circulation-conscious editorial boards are always wiser to tap into public sentiment rather than seek to recast it, particularly around here. Valley folk are independent types who welcome information, but are skeptical of mere opinion.

In fact, they tend to resent any hint of media preachiness, no matter what the publication — or the opinion column. We try to remember that whenever we feel a rant coming on.

The opinions in the Valley Observer are those of Hank Stokes. You can reach him in care of Palm Springs Life.
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