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    Candidate Endorsements: Speed Dating Without Cocktails

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer–

    While it feels like we just finished an election (we did), it’s already late August. For members of political clubs, elected officials and campaign staff that means it is “Endorsement Season,” otherwise known as “Speed Dating Without Cocktails.” November 6 is only a few months away, and while the eyes of the world are thankfully laser-focused on the national mid-term elections and the goal of flipping the House of Representatives, here in San Francisco it is that special time for candidates and sponsors of ballot measures to meet with political clubs and community organizations and beseech them to “pick me, pick me!”

    Endorsements are done in August for a very specific and strategic reason: they can only start after the filing deadline. Once the final endorsements are decided, clubs that want to start field outreach in mid-September only have a few weeks to prepare and print GOTV (get out the vote) literature such as slate cards, postcards, billboards, robo-calls, radio ads, traditional media and social media ads, and anything else to fill the eyeballs and ears of the voting public. Currently, there is no way to directly infiltrate the brain waves of voters, but I have a hunch that Russian scientists and engineers are already working on this technology.

    In a previous article (http://sfbaytimes.com/keeping-score-san-francisco-mayors-race/), I explained that endorsements are a person’s or group’s support of a candidate for elected office. In that same article, I said that London Breed would win and that “you heard it here first,” so I got that one right! What then happens in an endorsement meeting and why do they go on for hours and sometimes days? The process is complex and requires a great deal of advance preparation; the actual day of meeting consists of listening to candidates, discussion and deliberation, and eventually the tabulation of votes.

    About a month before the actual Endorsement meeting, the lucky people in charge of running the meeting monitor the SF Department of Elections website for candidate and ballot measure registrations. At the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, the members of the PAC subcommittee (Political Action Committee) divide up the candidates and ballot measures, send them the club questionnaire and schedule them for a 5-minute appointment on the day of the actual PAC endorsement meeting.

    I am not sure about other clubs, but at Alice, there are no “special favors”; if you are not available on the day of the meeting, you can either send a surrogate or request a phone-in slot. In 2010, our very own Governor Brown called in for his 5-minute slot, but I don’t think that anyone remembered a word he said because we were so excited that the (future) Governor was calling. (He soundly beat Meg Whitman in that race.)

    The absolute worst thing is to blow-off the endorsement meeting. If a candidate is “on the bubble,” this is a surefire way to lose support. I counsel candidates to find someone, anyone, to speak for them. Even a member of the club can fill in. A few years ago at Alice, a candidate called me on the morning of the meeting and asked me to be her surrogate. She had to miss the meeting because she was in active labor at the hospital. She spelled out her talking points and goals for the office in between contractions—now that’s dedication! (Or unhealthy obsession?)

    In order to be as efficient as possible, Alice does “precision scheduling” in which candidates are given an exact 5-minute time slot and asked to arrive at least 10 minutes in advance. This is a huge improvement over the old system in which candidates were give vague blocks of time to show up and then told to wait around for hours in the sweltering heat or freezing cold before being called. Precision scheduling involves much more work, but it is worthwhile and candidates love the efficiency. We’re a political club; we’re not the cable company. 

    The endorsement process on the day of the meeting is where the “speed dating” takes place. Each candidate gets 5 minutes total to pitch their story and to take questions. Candidates are encouraged to use 3 minutes for the “speech” and to save 2 minutes for questions, which is barely enough time for 2–3 questions. Nervous first-timers, and some well-experienced candidates too, often blow through the whole 5 minutes without leaving time for questions. It’s a rookie move, because the questions are usually more interesting than the canned and memorized speeches.

    Once all of the speeches are done, the fun begins. The members of the club deliberate and discuss the merits of the candidates and ballot measures. Depending on the number of candidates, this can go very quickly (it never does), or take a long time (it usually does). The voting processes and endorsement thresholds are set in each club’s bylaws and differ from club to club. In general, a candidate—and measure—must hit a certain percentage in order to be endorsed.

    If votes are split among multiple candidates and no one hits the required threshold, the club is stuck with the dreaded “No Position” decision for that office. This means the club could not come to a decision. It is generally not a negative statement about the candidates. In fact, in most cases it is a result of too many good people for only one job—an embarrassment of riches. This is different from “No Endorsement,” which means the club either didn’t like anyone who was running, or in the case of unopposed races, the club really did not like the person who is essentially going to win anyhow.

    So, armed with this knowledge, start paying attention in the next few weeks as slate cards fill your mailbox and your social media feeds fill up with endorsement data. If nothing else, you’ll know that the candidates chosen have survived a rigorous “Hunger Games” process to win that coveted endorsement.

    Louise (Lou) Fischer is the Immediate Past Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party. She was a San Francisco Commissioner and has served in leadership positions in multiple non-profit and community based organizations.