The first poll for the San Jose mayor’s race came out this week, and county Supervisor Dave Cortese sits atop the pack. This really isn’t surprising. Cortese has a solid base of support and, barring any unforeseen events, he should be among the top two after the June primary.
What’s interesting is the fight for second. Who will challenge Cortese in November? Currently, Madison Nguyen has a five-point lead over the rest of the field, according to the poll. Sam Liccardo, who is leading in the money race, sits in third at 10 percent. The rest of the field is in single digits.
Liccardo got out early with a campaign message. The problem is it’s the wrong message for him. Current polling indicates that crime is the number one issue in San Jose. While Liccardo has come out strong on the issue, and he has a background in the District Attorney’s office, it’s not his strength. He doesn’t have a public persona as a crime fighter, and he lacks the third-party validation needed to have credibility on the issue. In fact, police organizations and some law enforcement leaders have already endorsed Cortese.
Liccardo’s strengths are downtown development, affordable housing, sustainability and the environment. He is an avid biker and has been a tremendous advocate for transportation infrastructure. But he is not a crime fighter, and those who do fight crime have endorsed one of his opponents.
It’s still early. Liccardo has a chance for course correction, but he has stumbled out of the box with his early fundraising violation and his aforementioned Batman crusade without the mask or cape.
Nguyen has the same problem. But because she has not adopted a “crime fighter” message for the campaign, she has the opportunity to define herself in terms of her strengths.
Most of the other candidates have that ability as well, but most will be talking about crime because of the polls. It is the nature of politics, but also a losing strategy. If a candidate wants to survive to the general election and challenge Cortese, they have to distinguish themselves from the crowd.
In short, they should reject a poll driven campaign and engage focus on their strengths. In the John Vasconcellos campaign for state Senate in 1996, polls showed that crime was the number one issue. Some of the professionals on his team advised the veteran lawmaker to come out strong against crime.
In retrospect, the advice was not only wrong, it was laughable. Vasconcellos was an expert on education and the state budget. His views on fighting crime, while correct, were complex and largely at odds with many of those who prefer punishment to rehabilitation. Moreover, his thoughts did not translate into 30-second television ads—a necessity during that era of political communication.
But it was Vasconcellos himself who rejected those ideas and ran a campaign highlighting his credentials on education, the budget and his support for women and families. He ran on his strengths and not the temporary focus of voters, which can often change in a short period of time. And he won easily.
Vasconcellos could have screwed it up by being dishonest with voters about who he is as a person and leader. It is a lesson for those who seek to serve the public.
The biggest complaint against politicians, in general, is the willingness to pander to the electorate instead of showing integrity and leadership. Voters can vote for someone while disagreeing on some issues, but they will not support people who lack veracity. Integrity is the single most important issue for voters, including crime—but it is rarely quantified in a poll.
That’s why John Vasconcellos was in public office for 38 years. And it’s something each of the San Jose mayoral candidates should keep in mind.