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Commentary : Vain Effort to Oust an Incumbent

November 16, 1986|GREG WINTERBOTTOM | Greg Winterbottom is an Easter Seals executive.

On Nov. 4, 165,468 Orange County residents voted for me.

I received more votes than Joe Kennedy received in Boston, and more votes than Bob Dornan, Don Roth or Dick Longshore combined received in Orange County.

But unlike those successful candidates, I didn't win my race. Instead of electing me county recorder, voters chose to retain the beleaguered incumbent, Lee A. Branch.

I believe in democracy, so I can't complain about the results. I lost. That's life. The only thing I can do is chalk it up to experience.

But the experience itself--running for office, competing for media attention, scrounging for campaign contributions and dealing with colossal indifference--has been disillusioning.

I shouldn't be disillusioned, however. Everything happened just the way the cynics told me it would.

When I first started thinking about making a run for recorder, I thought the elements were right for me to win: Citizens were complaining about service, morale in the department was low and a scathing independent management audit accused the recorder of sloppy procedures.

I think I offered a pretty good alternative. I've worked for a Republican county supervisor and a Democratic state senator. I have a master's degree in public administration. I've served on boards and commissions and in management positions, in both the public and private sectors.

And, in a political season where candidates are railing about "war wimps" and phony military careers, I was offering voters a chance to vote for a Vietnam-era member of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. I've been in a wheelchair since I was in the Army 18 years ago. Support for my candidacy was instantaneous. The conservative California Republican Assembly backed me. So did the liberal AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, friends, city council members, The Times and Ralph Clark, the respected chairman of the Board of Supervisors and Lee Branch's boss. I was ecstatic. And grateful.

But I kept hearing one troubling thing. Shrewd political operatives wished me well, but their message was consistent and disturbing: No matter how qualified you are, you cannot beat an incumbent in a low-visibility race. It can't be done.

There were variations on this theme. Some said the press would ignore me. Others said there was no way to raise enough campaign cash to make a difference. Still others said apathy and indifference were so great that no one could overcome them.

I disagreed. I plunged into the race. I invested $10,000 of my own money before the June primary. I received a positive response to my campaign. It looked great.

The first taste of reality came in the June primary. I received 95,000 votes. Another challenger, a talented guy named Larry Bales, received 64,000. The incumbent, who barely lifted a finger to campaign, received 156,000. That's 49.5% of the vote. But because he didn't capture 50% of the vote in the primary, Lee Branch and I were in a showdown in November.

I figured just pushing the incumbent into a runoff would attract media attention. I thought I was set.

I was wrong.

The same shrewd political guys told me the same thing: You can't beat an incumbent. Don't expect much interest. The cynics were right again. There were no pre-election articles. No Orange County newspaper covered the fact that Larry Bales endorsed me over the incumbent.

I toyed with the idea of lobbing a political hand grenade Branch's way, but I don't want to wallow in the mud. I need some self-respect. So pretty soon the campaign dwindled down to me talking on the telephone to friends.

On Election Day I was clobbered at the polls.

Once again, the smart guys were right.

The political experts who say you can't beat an incumbent in a low-visibility job are engaging in a little self-fulfilling prophecy. They tell each other no one can win. They tell political reporters. Political reporters don't cover dull races. Why should they cover races that are never in doubt?

Even more troubling, I suppose, is why are low-visibility races even on the ballot? If it is virtually impossible to engage the public's attention, even when one candidate is lambasted in management audits and a challenger provides an attractive alternative, then why should these bottom-of-the-ballot jobs be elected?

I asked the smart political cynics this question. As usual, their response was disheartening.

The public won't vote to make elected positions appointed, they said. The public is so jaded with politics that they are afraid politicians will just appoint their cronies. By keeping the positions elected, the public thinks they keep control.

But they don't pay attention to the candidates in these races, and they don't even vote for them. Of the 643,000 who cast ballots, 137,651 didn't even bother to vote for recorder.

After battling through a campaign, losing, spending my own money, and talking to cynics who seem to be correct at a maddeningly accurate rate, I'm disillusioned.

But I'm not ready to give up. After all, 165,000 people did vote for me. A lot of people said the system works and can work better. If I push a little harder and I encourage other people to do better, I believe democracy can work.

But it isn't easy. And, according to the cynics, it's going to get tougher and tougher to communicate positive messages about qualifications and good government in the future.

But even the most hard-bitten of these political cynics agree: If enough people work hard enough, we can make our system work.

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