ELECTION ’12//ASSEMBLY 20 | The race for the second open Assembly seat in the East Bay, the 20th District centered in Hayward, is quite a bit similar to its cousin in the 18th. Both Bill Quirk and Dr. Jennifer Ong are Democrats with similar liberal pedigrees and strong support among certain special interests groups within the Democratic Party. In fact, the Assembly races in the East Bay make a mockery of the argument behind Proposition 14, passed in 2010 by voters to allow for open primaries. In deep blue locales like the East Bay, it’s only ramification is that provided voters with a choice between two Democratic clones and that is what we have here.
Sorry for what will seem like repetitive analysis, but the race in the 20th District is actually more similar to another internecine battle being waged in the campaign in the 15th Congressional District. It may come down to how much you value experience or whether you want to give the up-and-comer a chance to take the wheel.
Quirk, a former Hayward council member, who chose not to run for re-election this year, gobbled up nearly all of the local Democratic Party’s support and big-name endorsements as early as a year ago. In the process, he took a large early lead and sought to maintain it without doing much noticeable campaigning. Quirk easily won the primary and has remained quiet since. Granted, there is nothing wrong with his strategy. It’s a very conservative plan predicated on not making mistakes and, you know what? His campaign has not come even close to a slip-up. (Although, hold that thought.) The 2000 Baltimore Ravens famously won the Super Bowl with one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, but they also did it with a quarterback so limited in his talent that he was merely instructed not to lose games, as opposed to winning them. This appears to be what Quirk is attempting. Call it, “The Trent Dilfer Theory To Not Losing Assembly Campaigns.” Dilfer isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but he has a Super Bowl ring. The same rationale is going on here.
Bill Quirk, Dr. Jennifer Ong
But, not all is lost for Ong, who showed to be an excellent finisher this spring. In fact, during the last two weeks of the June primary campaign, Ong’s momentum was blazing down the stretch and no other candidate for any office in the East Bay came close to how hot she was. However, much of it was a finely coordinated ground game (remember the infamous pot holders and plants?) and one of the biggest outlays of independent expenditures in the entire state. Money talks and the over $200,000 in outside help Ong received from special interests groups seeking to limit medical malpractice payouts likely cancelled out Quirk’s support from labor unions. Can she replicate those two weeks in late May once more in late October? How about giving out full-sized Snickers bars with Ong branding to trick-or-treaters? Those houses always get major props over most who pass out the dinky “fun-sized” versions. Just an idea.
What can be said about the candidates is this: they are very different people. To save a flurry of words, much of who Quirk is can be gleaned from his former occupation. Quirk is a scientist. He thinks scientist and acts like a scientist. The first being a great intellectual positive, the second, a bit awkward for some. Ong, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma who comes across as vivacious and outgoing in small groups or even face-to-face, but wilts and fades in front of large crowds. Her performances during candidate’s forums earlier in the year looked like a deer staring into the headlights of a rushing car. Not to bring up any comparison other this, but Nadia Lockyer was another politician whose magnetism shined mightily in person at the same time she appeared befuddled while giving a speech.
Therefore, the big turning point in this race may revolve around messaging. No matter Quirk’s, well, quirks, his campaign stump speech is top-notch. It is well-honed, well-thought out and somewhat uplifting and makes his case. Apparently, he has also come to the same conclusion, since he readily pulls out the remarks.
Now to the part where I told you to hold that thought: While Quirk has not come close to making a mistake, quite a few East Bay insiders cringed when they saw photos of Quirk’s sashaying around at his retirement party from the Hayward City Council last June clad in disco-era clothing and accessories and punctuated with garish yellow pants. One photo captured Quirk, mouth agape, posing Saturday Night Fever-style for the camera. “That’s picture is going to be on a hit piece,” said one source, who also encompassed the general consensus. In most cases, the sentiment is rooted in the fact that noted political rough-houser Richie Ross is behind Ong’s campaign. Say this about Ong, she is not the type of person who hires a plumber to fix her clogged sink and then attempt to instruct the expert on how to do his job. She has spent a small fortune on her campaign vessel without any experience as a skipper and she is more than willing to let Ross navigate it for her to Nov. 6.
IF THE ELECTION WERE TODAY… Hayward would avoid the ignominy of not having a viable candidate to represent it in the Alameda County supervisors race with the election of its former councilman to the Assembly. Quirk has run a strong, if uneventful, campaign built for the long game. Brainstorming how Ong can pull ahead, without a major flub from Quirk, is hard to do. The only conceivable avenue would be to relentlessly portray Quirk as weird. It’s a similar gambit some Democrats are using nationally against Mitt Romney. When they mention Romney once tied the family dog and his crate to the top of the roof of their car during a long road trip, it comes under the heading of making the guy out to be strange. I, on the other hand, have a cat, so doing what Romney did sounds perfectly acceptable to me. However, this tactic at a local level involves too much personal coordination with surrogates who are willing to talk trash or even make fun of Quirk, for it to gain much traction. It also begs the existential question of how far are you willing to go to win and is it worth it?