George Boardman: The Dahle-Kiley ‘race’ for office is just a preview of things to come
Observations from the center stripe: Backbone edition
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In case you missed it, Assemblyman Brian Dahle won last week’s special election for the first district State Senate seat that represents Nevada County in Sacramento.
Most residents who knew there was an election apparently didn’t care who won. Just 21 percent of the county’s 69,661 registered voters bothered to vote, but they went for Dahle over challenger Kevin Kiley by better than 2 to 1—10,097 votes to 4,957. That 5,140-vote margin was 61.2 percent of Dahle’s total winning margin of 8,297 votes.
That’s pretty good for a candidate who strenuously avoided being seen in the county with Kiley, and who was a no-show after the Nevada County Republican Party invited him to address their annual dinner in Auburn — yes, Auburn. I wonder how local Republicans like being taken for granted?
Dahle told the Sacramento Bee he’ll focus on reducing health-care costs, driving down the cost of living in California, and addressing the crime issue. “We worked really hard to educate the voters of who I am and what I’m about, and it paid off,” he said.
Too bad Dahle didn’t address any of those issues during the campaign. Certainly, it wasn’t explained in the campaign literature we received from Dahle and various groups heretofore unknown that claimed to support his candidacy. It all focused on Kiley’s real or perceived shortcomings, and how Dahle has resisted the blandishments of special interests like the evil PG&E.
Now we can look forward to another round of special elections. Gov. Gavin Newsom will have to call a special election to fill Dahle’s soon-to-be vacant Assembly seat. Depending on how that special election goes, we could be asked to vote on the issue four times between now and November 2020.
Dahle will soon be gearing up to win a full term to the Senate seat in next year’s general election. If he can get elected twice to the seat, he will have an office to occupy for over nine years while he waits for Doug LaMalfa’s congressional seat to become available. (You heard it here first!) Meanwhile, he’ll be languishing in the super minority Republicans have managed to achieve in the state Senate, working to get the Democrat majority to throw some bread crumbs his way.
One thing Dahle can’t claim — although nothing can stop him from trying — is a clear mandate from the people, since just 70,556 of the almost 1 million he’ll represent voted for him. Special elections always draw small turnouts and the fact that both candidates were Republicans kept Democrats on the sidelines — I don’t know one who voted.
Another factor was the lack of direct engagement between the candidates. Certainly Dahle, and maybe Kiley as well, had no interest in presenting his ideas in public forums with the other candidate in the same room. Each was apparently content to attack the other with mailers and online advertising while avoiding any venue where their views might actually get challenged.
That would not have happened 20 years ago, when we still had a robust newspaper industry in this county that had the manpower to hold candidates accountable. But, as you may have heard, the dead tree media have fallen on hard times. Since 2004, some 1,800 newspapers have gone out of business and, from 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment dropped 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
That means that one out of every five Americans live in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local news coverage. The newspapers that remain have much smaller staffs, severely restricting their ability to cover local issues. But communities with newspapers are the lucky ones — nearly half the counties in the U.S. have only one newspaper.
Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, and public officials who are more willing to test the limits of what’s acceptable.
“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, (in the absence of) a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former Cleveland newspaper executive. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”
If nothing else, newspaper reporters can act as scarecrows. “The very presence of a reporter in a city council meeting can discipline behavior,” said Phil Napoli, a public policy professor at Duke University who has studied the impact of media on government.
It’s clear, though, that there are fewer reporters covering city halls. Last year, a study co-authored by Napoli found that over the course of a week in 100 randomly selected communities, one out of five places had no local news coverage at all.
Other studies suggest that the cost of government goes up when media coverage declines. Someone might be tweeting from city council chambers, but fewer people are being paid to ferret out and synthesize enough information to give citizens in many communities solid, ongoing information about what their government is up to.
“We have no idea of what goes on in determining where our taxes go and what things are regulated,” said Matt Carlson, a journalism studies professor at the University of Minnesota. “You need people watching what you’re doing. It’s as simple as that. But that’s really, really expensive, especially in a local market.”
Don’t expect Facebook, Google and others to pick up the slack — they’re free riders who essentially steal the news they provide their users. Local television and radio stations aren’t much better — they don’t know what’s going on if they lack a newspaper to tell them.
The Dahle-Kiley race wasn’t an anomaly. It’s a preview of what we can expect in the future when nobody’s left to hold candidates accountable.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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