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Back-to-Basics Candidates Take the Fight to the Field

CAMPAIGN 2001 / Media: Reaching Voters


Kessa Alvey's nails are bitten ragged. She guzzles Dr Pepper to stay awake. And when she gets home from work around midnight, the 23-year-old Ohio transplant crashes on a mattress in a Boyle Heights house she shares with two friends.

Alvey, a lead field organizer for Rep. Xavier Becerra's mayoral campaign, is one of the hundreds of weary but eager recruits pounding the pavement and working the phones for the six major candidates vying for the city's highest office.

While the mayor's race is being waged mostly through slickly produced television commercials and glossy brochures, a little-noticed cadre of campaign workers is engaged in the shoe leather-wearing, calf-straining work of reaching out to voters one at a time.

"Field," as it's called in the world of politics, represents the opposite pole to television on the campaign spectrum. It is personal, direct and, on a voter-by-voter basis, extraordinarily labor intensive. It is a phone call, a handshake and a look in the eye in an era when most voters will get their only measure of a candidate from a fleeting image concocted in a production studio.

What is unclear is whether, in a city as far-flung as Los Angeles, a campaign built around field can win.

More than any other candidate, Becerra is testing the effective limits of a ground effort. While all the mayoral candidates are using varying amounts of field to mobilize voters, the four-term Democratic congressman has focused most of his campaign on organizing volunteers to call potential supporters and walk door to door.

In part, that's a function of necessity: Becerra lags far behind the leaders in fund-raising, forcing him to rely more heavily on volunteers.

Still, his campaign makes the most of the situation.

"It's a totally back-to-the-basics, fundamental way of campaigning," said Becerra's campaign manager, Paige Richardson. "In a culture in which you get less and less interpersonal interaction, it becomes more valuable. It's going to last longer and have more depth than a television commercial."

At its best, field can help candidates build a quiet groundswell of loyal support that sometimes is undetected by polls, and can make the difference in a close election, experts say.

"I've consistently told candidates that you've got to do what everyone else is doing: You've got to do the mail, the media and the radio," said James Acevedo, a veteran Los Angeles field organizer who worked with former Mayor Tom Bradley and City Councilman Alex Padilla, among others. "But if you want to make your candidacy a cause, a reason for being, you've got to be able to touch people at the door."

The challenge, as Becerra's campaign admits, is to reach enough people across the sprawling city to compete with the regular bombardment of thousands of residents by his opponents' commercials.

Since February, the campaign has signed up about 1,400 volunteers who have made more than 300,000 contacts with voters, about 20% of whom have pledged to vote for Becerra, Richardson said.

To Becerra backers, those numbers suggest the potential for a surprising showing on election day next week.

But those same figures pale next to the reach of television.

According to Los Angeles political veterans, about $400,000 worth of network television ads during a week--a typical buy for the top candidates--can reach about 450,000 likely voters as many as 10 times.

As a result, while field may be an appealing and folksy method of politicking that gives voters a more concrete impression of a candidate, it may not be the most efficient way to reach people in a large citywide race, some experts said.

"The most effective contact you can have is face to face with a voter. There's honesty there," said Sue Burnside, a consultant for City Councilman Joel Wachs, who started the first field consulting firm in the country.

"[But] the mayor's race is not one of those big field races. There are just so many voters. You've got to have thousands and thousands of walkers out to try to make up the difference with TV."

Most campaign experts agree that, for field to work, a candidate must also do significant outreach through television and mail. Becerra has been unable to muster much of either.

By last week, he had raised about $1 million, the least of the six major candidates. Without much money in the bank, he has been able to afford only a limited television buy, most of it on Spanish-language stations. The campaign is also sending out several mailers to voters during the campaign's final days.

Indeed, recent polls suggest that Becerra's effort has not registered--at least not yet. He trails the rest of the pack significantly in most surveys.

Field "can be a tiebreaker, but it doesn't get you in the game," said Parke Skelton, a consultant for former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, another mayoral candidate.

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