Monday, July 25, 2005

Municipal Campaign Strategy; Learning from Lafayette

So what did we all learn from the battle of Lafayette? I've been asked recently and have been thinking about it some...What follows is a first draft which focuses pretty much on the active strategies of the two sides as I see it. —It's about what they tried to accomplish and where they wanted the conversation to go. This ignores some interesting larger factors (like trust in the mayor, or the relaxed southern Lousiana attitude toward government, or Lafayette's peculiar ways of organizing influence, for instance) that could be considered important but background factors. It also mostly ignores the tactical questions--how the strategies were enacted--that are some of the more interesting things to come out of this fight. Instead this is a more birds-eye view of what, it seems to me, both sides might have learned from Lafayette's fight for fiber.

First off, it's pretty apparent that the incumbents don't have much new up their sleeves. The campaign they waged here mirrored campaigns they've waged in the past. We didn't see the as dramatic a finish as we saw in the Tri-Cities but that may well have been because the battle was already lost for BellSouth and Cox before the end arrived. But that doesn't mean that their basic idea about what makes for an effective campaign has changed: the basic strategy of sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt seems pretty constant. The tactics here seemed to involve a lot of replays as well...Push polls were used here, albeit pretty counter effectively. We got two last minute overexcited direct mail focusing on false claims about taxes, the repeatedly disproven idea that all municipal broadband (or even most) is failing, and silliness about the debt families are supposedly taking on. Too, as in the Tri-Cities, an editorial writer who played a prominent role in the opposition was taken to task for unseemly involvement with the incumbents or their allies. The tactics were mostly retreads; what was different was that the predictable campaign was not fronted entirely by the incumbents themselves but, especially in the last days by their allies at Fiber 411.

One of the things the incumbents learned here was that long campaigns are bad for them. Given time, and an aggressive willingness to fight back, lies can be disproved, push polls turned to outrage, and promoting fear and insulting the intelligence of the locals begins to sour any possible relationship with the community. In Lafayette the fight went on for too long. The incumbents had to trot out their best weapons too early and pro-fiber partisans were able to correctly label them as FUD and drive home the message that the incumbents were not being truthful—a message that inoculated the public against further last minute lies.

Unfortunately, I think the incumbents also learned that, saved to the last minute, and promoted through a local proxy, their FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) approach can still be effective. I agree with Don's analysis that the last minute mailers, the full page ads that simply reprinted a (non)local editorialist's massively inaccurate take and automated phone calling about a new fantasy "debt" issue were effective. They were simply not effective enough. The local pro-fiber groups kept up a dogged insistence, even during the incumbents' quietest moments, that the incumbents and their allies were not truthful. Radio time remained filled with a recut version of the push poll and Lafayette Coming Together (LCT) was relentless in pushing the issue. LCG and LUS, while toning down this message near the end and moving it away from the Terry and Joey, never fully abandoned it.

What the pro-municipal fiber forces learned was probably more valuable: that they can win. The overwhelming economic power of the incumbents can be blunted. Their willingness to leave accuracy and truthfulness aside in the pursuit of their own interests can be turned against them. What it takes is something that most municipal officials will not have the stomach for: a full throated attack on some of the most powerful corporations in their city. Telephone corporations have a long history of being the most "generous" investors in state election campaigns and the most powerful lobbying force in state legislatures. Cable companies control what politicians understand to be the most powerful media in town. Lafayette was willing to fight with a strong local and populist message that clearly labeled its opposition as "greedy" "out-of-state" "monopolies." The spectacle of our Mayor and the head of the utility system "standing up" for Lafayette in a press conference after every bit of misinformation spread by the incumbents and being uncompromising in calling them on each and every false claims was crucial to the campaign. Driving home the message that the incumbents self-interest and greed was driving this process was invaluable in resisting the final onslaught.

There is little doubt that Lafayette had advantages that might not be available in all locales. The bravery of the leadership and its willingness to call a monopoly, a monopoly and greed, greed has already been noted and was tremendously important. There was also a determined, deliberately broad-based coalition of citizens that made it hard to paint the project as one fostered by wealthy technocrats. The coalition group, Lafayette Coming Together, was also quite sophisticated about the use of both old and new media. But the greatest advantage was a pride of place born out of a realistic belief that the region, and Lafayette as the heart of that region, is unique and not subject to rules imposed on us by outsiders. It mixture of cultures, its cultural identities, and the ways the people have found to sustain their cultures make it very difficult for outsiders to successfully come in and infer that the locals are incompetent or successfully introduce effective divisive tactics. (One of the more despicable strategies, used all the way through and culminating in simple lies on Black radio near the end, was to try and split the Creole and black communities away from the rest of the community by using historical resentments which had nothing to do with the issue at hand. Without the aid of some community leaders this attempt might have taken firm hold. But the attempt is destined to be one of the longest remembered stains on the campaign of the incumbents and their allies.) Most communities have never had to develop that sort of resilience in the face of outside disapproval but the communities of Acadiana are very good at dismissing outsiders.

Other considerations that helped support a victory in Lafayette appear to be a result of market and national policy worries of the incumbents. Fights like the one in the Tri-Cities can be considered Pyrrych victories—the cost was high, not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of their reputation both locally and nationally. The cable and telephone companies simply are regional monopolies in their core business and maintaining a favorable regulatory relations at the state level and franchise agreements at the local level depend upon their being perceived as good, or at least benign, local citizens. It will surely take a decade or more to regain that status in the Tri-Cities; even voters who succumbed to the arguments of the incumbents could not help but notice the fear-based tactics that were used to bring them along. There was no large federal issue ongoing at the time of the fight in Illinois. But major initiatives of both the Cable and the Phone companies are before statehouses and more importantly, the Congress. The centrally important 1996 telecom act is up for revision this legislative season, in but one example. An ugly, high-profile attack on Lafayette when the defenders were willing to fight back by identifying the incumbent corporations as "greedy monopolists" may well have been too much to stomach for those at corporate central who felt they had bigger fish to fry and to much to lose to risk that sort of battle in a single small city.

Finally there is the basic market motivation: too much bad behavior damages the bottom line--if you lose. Surely BellSouth and Cox had done their own polling and could read the writing on the wall as well as anyone. The referendum was going to succeed and polling no doubt showed that the first reaction of the population to a new round of misinformation would turn more people against them than it gained. If there was any doubt about that the swift and overwhelmingly hostile reaction to the second push poll this summer proved the point that the usual incumbent tactics had become counter-productive. The hard truth was that BellSouth and Cox still had to compete in Lafayette and a loss in a full scale assault would have immediately pushed the likely "take rate" among voters past 50% percent if corporate behavior turned a "Yes" vote into a vote against Cox and BellSouth. Working through proxies and saving the mail pieces and scare phoning until the end when they could not be answered might well have been all that can be done without damaging their market position by turning the referendum into a marketing tool for LUS.

Lafayette's battle deserves, I believe, to be seen as one model for regaining local control of crucial monopoly infrastructure. The underlying populist message of local self-determination and legitimate anger toward regional monopolies like BellSouth and Cox was what drove the winning argument in Lafayette. People saw nothing wrong with building for themselves a network that the incumbents refused to build for them. Similarly, people do understand that these companies are monopolies whose bottom line has nothing to do with what is best for the communities across the country in which they reside. That is the core upon which electoral success was built. Lafayettes' leadership, her aware citizens' group, a committed 'old Lafayette' leadership, and the way her cultural distinctiveness played out made the message relatively easy to develop and denied the opposition virtually all local assets. Other communities might not share those particular advantages but the anti-incumbent message that can win has now been established and future communities can sharpen the message and develop their own resources.

Lafayette can be proud to have developed a winning model and strategy—not without help of course, but with plenty of verve. It will be up to our successors to sharpen the tool and make it more generally useful.


Jon Fitzgerald said...

Well done.

John said...

Thanks Jon.

There's lots left out in this short recap. I always wonder what I've overlooked.