Here's a great example why people stay out of the
take-no-prisoners cynical political process. They stand an excellent chance of being
dragged through the mud at some point, almost always unfairly.
Phil Schmit is
the latest victim. The retired public official was the subject of an attack ad--and
he's not even running for anything! n
the clerk-recorder race, Democrat Jim Dantona's campaign released a mailer with,
let's say...a lack of detail and perspective that hopefully I can provide here.
mailer, which states we need to "take our county back & clean up this mess"
has four main themes (see a picture of it here).
1. -Ventura County voting machines are defective or
-Schmit is an incompetent who was forced out by a
grand jury investigation
-The disgraced Schmit "anointed" Lunn to succeed
him, therefore Lunn is tainted
-Lunn, a retired CHP officer, collects too much
taxpayer dollars in pensions
I'd like to focus on the criticisms of Phil Schmit, now that
his reputation has become a campaign issue. But first, why involve him at all?
The endorsement of someone who held the office you are
seeking to be elected to is a valuable thing. It implies that someone with
expertise in the job thinks that you have the ability to do a good job.
Mark Lunn has this advantage; Dantona doesn't. What's the best
way to neutralize that? You spin it as a negative--suddenly it's a Faustian deal
borne in a smoke-filled room. Then, you break down the reputation of the man
who gave the endorsement. If we tend to trust a candidate who is endorsed by a competent
public official, shouldn't we distrust a candidate who is endorsed by an
incompetent public official?
Of course, the truth is always an obstacle that must be
overcome. But cynical political operatives on both sides of the aisle have
convinced themselves that they're just doing their jobs when they spin the
truth into something it's not. That's how it's rationalized--if we didn't do it,
the bad guys would win, etc.
Let's examine each theme in the mailer and see if we can't
extract the truth.
Theme #1: Ventura
County voting machines are defective or antiquated
The mailer shows five newspaper clippings that attest to
this. Problem: three of the newspapers aren't in Ventura County--ABC News, Wired
Magazine, and the New York Times--and they don't
identify any problems in Ventura County. They are just general problems
about voting machines in other parts of the country, meant to elicit general
anxiety that something must be done. The public's mood is ripe for electoral
shenanigans ever since Bush v. Gore,
but this isn't Broward County, and we don't have hanging chads--Phil Schmit saw
The two remaining newspaper clippings, both renderings of the
Ventura County Star, are about local elections problems.
The first, Ballot
Problem at Hand Again, is an April 17, 2010 article about how the
clerk-recorder's office has yet
to automate the absentee vote-counting process.
Jim Dantona can bring this up as a legitimate issue all day
long. He was a candidate in a 2006 race that took 24 days to call because so
many absentee ballots came in at the last minute--ballots that had to be hand
counted. He ultimately lost to the boss of his current opponent, Mark Lunn.
However, automating absentee ballot-counting is not
something you just snap your fingers and do. In fact, the article Dantona
references states that Ventura County is like most counties in that absentees
are hand counted, according to the VP of the California Association of Clerks
and Election Officials.
In an era of cash-strapped local governments, is it a bad
thing for Schmit not to rush and ask for new equipment, particularly since in
the very same mailer he's criticized for spending $5 million on new machines?
In addition to being expensive, the automation equipment is also
rather large, taking up an entire room. Santa Barbara election workers
nicknamed it "The Beast." A machine to open the ballots would cost $120,000, and
a signature verification machine would cost several hundred thousand dollars--and
it's only been available since March.
The only other Ventura County article has to do with the
grand jury. I'll cover this next.
Theme #2: Schmit is an incompetent who was forced out by
a grand jury investigation
Sounds scary, right? It fits the cliché we always hear--the politician
resigns suddenly after a grand jury investigation into his misdealing.
But that's a long ways from the truth, especially
considering that Schmit publicly announced his retirement months before the
grand jury issued their findings.
First, grand juries are routine in government and every department
submits to them as a matter of course. There was no order to investigate Phil
Schmit's conduct or anything like that. The grand jury was convened in anticipation
of the November 2008 election.
This particular grand jury determined
that "November's  election went off mostly without a hitch" with the
exception of a razor-thin race for school board in Santa Paula.
The only serious problem was at a
polling place in Santa Paula, where grand jury members saw poll workers give
some voters the wrong ballots
Remember, the mailer is trying to find fault with Schmit.
But it turns out some volunteers gave out the wrong ballots in an area where there
were two possible ballots they could be given.
The border of the Santa Paula
Elementary School District ran through the precinct in question, so the polling
place had two separate ballots. As many as 14 voters who should have voted in
the school board election got a ballot that didn't have that race
It was probably the first time that's happened in 30 years,
but that day Schmit resolved to end the multi-ballot practice. In a county
where hundreds of thousands of people vote, in an election year with the highest
turnout in 28 years, 14 people were handed the wrong ballot by poll workers
and the election was decided by one vote. Because votes are secret, there was
no way for Schmit to determine which 14 people had the wrong ballot, so he
certified the election. I think it was a flawed election, but Schmit's decision
to certify it was not flawed--he had no other choice.
The grand jury commended the elections division for its
handling of the election and its cooperation. Yet their report appears on an
attack ad criticizing Schmit.
And how about Schmit resigning in disgrace as a result of
the grand jury's findings?
jury's report about the November 2008 election came out in April 2009.
Phil Schmit publicly announced
his intent to retire in October 2008, a week before the election that
supposedly disgraced him.
left office in January, at the age of 64, three months before the grand
jury's report came out.
What more needs to be said?
Theme #3: The
disgraced Schmit "anointed" Lunn to succeed him, therefore Lunn is tainted
Here's the main point of the attack ad--Schmit is incompetent
and shady, therefore Lunn must be so, too, because Schmit asked Lunn to run for
We've already cut through the fog and determined that the
main problems under Schmit were the length of time it took to hand count
absentee ballots in a 2006 Supervisor race, and the freak occurrence of a
one-vote loss in a unusual district where a poll worker made an error. In
either case, it's hard to lay so much blame at Schmit's feet that he deserves
an attack ad in a race he isn't running in.
I'll leave the fourth theme about the pension for some other
time. My main point here is that a man was unfairly associated with things that
don't involve him in a race he's not in, and he doesn't have a forum to defend
I think it's wrong, and while I can't cancel out the tens of
thousands of dollars worth of mailers with the misrepresentations on it, I can
provide a permanent record of the details surrounding the issues the mailer