Last night, I went to the Election Night event for Nick Melvoin, who I've been writing about here for his candidacy to the L.A. school board. First things first -- it was an uphill battle when he announced his candidacy for his first-ever general campaign, and against the sitting school board president. But Nick won. and by a lot, more on that later.
It was a very weird night. I drove over with his dad Jeff, and on the way there Nick's mom Martha called from the headquarters to say that early vote-by mail numbers were in, and that Nick had 60% of that, up by 6,500. But it was clearly very early, around 8:30 PM with polls having closed only a half-hour before, and you can't extrapolate that absentee votes will be the same for those who vote at the polls. Besides which, mail-in-votes tend to only account for 10-15% of the final total at most. Still, it was good to have those votes in your hip pocket.
I have to admit that my favorite part of the evening is that they had food from the nearby Baby Blue's Barbecue. And though I'm not as big a fan of them as their reputation, they're still very good, and BBQ ribs are probably my favorite food. So, whatever happened with the election I knew it was a good night for me. Hey, I have my priorities.
The oddest thing of the night is Steve Zimmer conceded (bitterly, almost Nixonian) at around 9:50, when it looked like only absentee ballots were in. It didn’t make sense. Nick didn’t think he’d likely won until around 1 AM, and even then wasn't sure.
And when I say that the concession was bitter, I mean it was almost at the Nixonian level, and his comments all night (that L.A. Times kept tweeting) were bizarre and continued throughout the evening. almost Nixonian. Things like -- and I'm paraphrasing, but close -- “This is my last race, I’m not running again.” And “I won’t be calling the Melvoin campaign and won’t take a call from them.” It just kept getting stranger and angrier all night. (Just what you want from a president of a school board...)
I have no doubt Steve Zimmer didn't like the criticisms against him. And no doubt thought they were unfair. No one likes being criticized. But then he was as critical and unfair of Melvoin. More so, in fact, because his was the only campaign that stooped to smearing -- not just criticizing platforms, but knowingly ascribing false motivations (that Nick was in the pocket of Trump and Betsy DeVos, when in fact he had worked in the Obama Administration, was endorsed by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and endorsed by former Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer). So, the Zimmer bitterness seemed ill-proportioned.
I'm sure Zimmer too was upset by how expensive the race was -- but though Melvoin raised the most, Zimmer raised a huge amount, as well. And both had outside groups running their own separate campaigns. In fact, I get the sense that most of the mailers and negatively on both sides came from these outside groups, not the campaigns themselves. From what little I know, both candidates were bothered by it.
The larger point is that while any losing candidate is going to be upset, I think that Steve Zimmer's Nixonian bitterness was understandable, but profoundly myopic with no self-awareness of how much he himself was at the heart of things.
But back to the night.
Late in the evening, a reporter from the local ABC station did a live remote. I was sitting about eight feet away, and just was he finishing his final words...some guy ran on camera and screamed out something incredibly crude (let's just say some of it included Trump's Access Hollywood words from the bus...but worse) and then ran off. When the camera cut, the reporter -- to my surprise, but to his credit, I think -- pounded over to the guy, furious and read him the riot act. The guy didn't seem to care (either because he was drunk or an idiot), and when he wandered off, the reporter pursued him, continuing to tell him off. Even when he came back to his equipment he was still steaming. "I was prepared for someone interrupting, but not that," he said. I tried to placate him, but he was too bothered. I got the sense he was also bothered because he said they couldn't use his piece now online -- but I can't believe they can't just bleep out the deeply crude words, or even just cut the segment two seconds early.
Anyway, as I said, people there were really bewildered by the very-early concession, to the extent of dismissing it. When Nick was asked to make a speech, he put no stock in an early concession saying the only thing that matter was the final vote count.
The biggest oddity of the night though (at least to me) was something I discovered around 1 AM and no one else had noticed – including Nick and his campaign manager, when I told them. And no one had noticed the big monitors around the room were only showing the specific results of the race from the City Clerk's webpage, but not what was as the top of the web page. Only when I decided on a whim to to onto that same page on my mobile phone did I notice it. Usually, one assumes that absentee ballots will make up about 10% of the results, and that’s what everyone presumed there, and so everyone was waaaaaiting all night for all the votes to come in. But I discovered something at the top of the page that broke down where the votes come from – whether at the polling locations or by mail. And it turned out that an amazing 62% of votes came by mail!!! So, when those first results were posted at 8:30 in the evening, and they broke so heavily for Nick, up by 6,500, the race actually was pretty much over. He ended up winning by 8,000 (out of 53,000 cast). He got 57% of the vote, to Zimmer's 43%, which is pretty much a landslide.
Ultimately, that must be why Zimmer conceded so early in the evening. He probably saw how far he was behind and knew (at that point) that about 75% of the vote was in and couldn’t be made up – while everyone at the Melvoin event all thought it was only about 10-15% of the vote. And when it was taking soooo long for votes to come in – that was because most of the votes were actually already in!!!
So, for whatever reason, he did really well with absentee voting by mail. Maybe it’s because those people missed all the mailers, who knows?
There was something else at play here, too, though. In a general election, lots of people vote, have no idea who anyone is for school board, and vote for the person whose credentials are listed as “School board member.” In this runoff election, you don’t get those masses of “general election” people who don’t have a clue who they’re voting for. By comparison, in the runoff, the vote totals were paltry, yet everyone voting knew who they were voting for. And “get of the vote” efforts were critical, which I think the Melvoin campaign did a strong job of, including going after mail-in votes.
And there was one other matter I mentioned to people during the campaign. In the general election, Steve Zimmer got 46% of the vote. That said to me it seemed possible that 54% of the public simply didn't want him back on the school board. Sometimes, people do vote for someone in a runoff who they didn't in a general election, because they like that person but just not as much as they like their first choice. But I don't think that's the case when the person you didn't vote for the first time is the sitting president of the school board. Either you like him and vote for him the first time, or you don't.
Also, the campaigns and mailers probably made at least some difference. Not just convincing people to vote for a candidate or against the opponent, but in some cases I’m sure there were some people who voted the opposite of what a negative or smear was saying. And as much as Zimmer was complaining about negative attacks, it was his campaign that went over the top trying (reprehensibly) to tie Melvoin to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. And that could have backfired.
I’m sure the Melvoin campaign was helped by endorsements from Barbara Boxer, Obama’s Secretary of Education, Democratic ex-Mayor Villaraigosa, Republican ex-Mayor Riordan, the L.A. Times and L.A. Daily News.
And of course issues mattered, as well. Though to what degree, I have no idea. In large part because there was such odd overlap there. For instance, Nick was was positioned by his opponents as the “charter” candidate. Yet it was just one part of his platform – and Zimmer actually supported some charters, too, he just didn't promote that. In fact, in Melvoin's victory speech -- in which he praised Steve Zimmer's long service to education -- he ONLY spoke about public schools, saying how lucky he was where he grew up, unlike the kids who were unlikely by where they grew up, “which is so unfair and un-American, and we have to fix that and give everyone an equal chance with public education that is so important.” Keep in mind, he said that after he won, not just mouthing words on the campaign trail to win support. It's what he campaigned on for the first -- in public and on his website -- but it wasn't how he was positioned by the other side.
Ultimately, I don’t think any single reason was why Nick Melvoin won. It’s probably a mix of all that --- and probably other things thrown in.
But he did win. And by a LOT.
A year-and-a-half ago, when Nick’s mom told me he was running, I thought it was great. When she said his opponent would be the sitting school board president, I said, wow, that’s going to be an uphill struggle. I thought that even until about 1 AM last night, even when he was ahead. I wasn’t alone. Even he mentioned what an uphill race this was.
So…who knows why Nick won? But he did, and in a landslide.
I'm biased. I've known him since he was a kid. But because I know what a thoughtful, decent, smart, caring guy he is, I'm thrilled for him.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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