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The pack looks back

City Council candidates reflect on the campaign trail, share what they learned and discuss the role

Posted: April 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.

As election returns rolled in during last Tuesday’s challenger-heavy Santa Clarita City Council race, a pattern emerged: The two incumbents were comfortably out front, and a pack of two to five challengers was clumped behind them in a race for the third seat so close that its results won’t be known, at the earliest, until the last ballot is counted this Tuesday.

With the margin between third-place contender Dante Acosta and fourth-place contender Alan Ferdman standing at just 46 votes based on election-night ballot counts, the lower-tally candidates could be looked at as spoilers who pulled away votes from other contenders.

But they don’t see it that way.

Playing the spoiler?

Some candidates did say they felt the crowded field of 13 people running for council ended up spreading out the vote and making it difficult to challenge incumbent council members Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean.

“When you have a lot of candidates, it always favors the incumbents,” said Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who collected the fifth-most votes with 4,355. “And our team felt that it was going to really spread the vote.”

Duane Harte, who finished in sixth place with 4,198 votes according to the city’s election night tally, said he also thinks the large number of candidates spread the vote out and benefitted the incumbents in the end.

“There’s no question,” he said. “With 13 names on a ballot, I think that worked wonders for the incumbency.”

Not spoilers

But the candidates who pulled in fewer votes said they don’t see themselves as spoilers in the election.

“I don’t think my votes hurt anybody, but who knows?” said Paul Wieczorek, who tallied 1,046 votes according to the election-night results. “You could look at about six or seven of us and say the same thing.”

Stephen Daniels said he also doesn’t see himself in that light. He said he encouraged his supporters not to “bullet vote” – that is, cast a vote for just him when the ballot allows a vote for three – to avoid taking away support from other candidates.

Sandra Bull, who pulled in 1,252 votes, said she also doesn’t see herself as a spoiler in the race.

“I don’t think any of the ‘minor’ candidates really had that much of an effect,” she said. “I think they (voters) voted for who they wanted to and then, as an afterthought, they voted for another candidate.”

Berta Gonzalez-Harper agreed.

“I don’t think I took votes away from anybody,” she said. “I think people voted for me because they know me personally or because my message resonated with them.”

Small money

Gonzalez-Harper suggested another problem with the election isn’t the high candidate count but the high cost of running.

Some of the 13 candidates had tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to fill their coffers and fuel their campaigns.

Gonzalez-Harper said that funding gap made it difficult to compete.

“Money talks,” she said. “And without money, you really can’t mount an effective campaign, or at least it’s very, very difficult.”

Gonzalez-Harper, who finished with 878 votes on election night, said that she used the numerous candidate forums held throughout the campaign to get her message out.

“The forums were really helpful, especially for people who didn’t have a lot of money,” she said.

Bull also acknowledged the difficulties of running a cash-light campaign.

“If I had spent $30,000, I guarantee I would have gotten more votes,” she said. “But it’s all in perspective.”

Bull also said she was pleased with how many votes she did receive given the small amount of money she was able to pour into her campaign.

“I felt good about where I came out,” she said.

A learning experience

For some of those who finished near the back of the council pack, the campaign was a chance to learn new things.

Daniels said one of the things he learned was that Santa Clarita City Council elections can be very political in nature.

“You want to believe that a City Council race is something small and innocent, but it’s not,” said Daniels, who finished the election night count with 1,080 votes.

Daniels, who described the campaign as a “great learning experience,” also noted with a laugh that he learned he could speak a little more slowly when he talks.

Bull said what sticks in her mind was how much there was to learn about the city.

“What I realized is that the general public isn’t even aware of most of what goes on in the city,” she said. “I know I wasn’t.”

Bull also said she enjoyed digging through the city’s budget to get a better idea of local finances.

“I learned a lot about the workings of the city and the needs of the city,” she said.

For Gonzalez-Harper, there are a few things that stand out.

“One is that, although it’s a nonpartisan seat, it is definitely a partisan race, and I underestimated that aspect,” she said.

‘Bitten by the bug’

This year’s City Council election was the first venture into the public light for many of the candidates, as many had never run a campaign before.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the last time, some said.

“I’ve been bitten by the bug a bit,” Daniels said, adding he could apply the lessons he learned this year to a potential future campaign. “And I’m certainly excited about the possibility of going out and doing it again.”

Bull said she plans to run for another elected office, perhaps launch another bid for a board seat in the Newhall School District, where she unsuccessfully ran in 2013.

“As an educator, I love to learn,” she said. “I would do this again, but I would prepare better — I would do it differently.”

Whatever the future plans, candidates said, if given the chance, they would do it all over again this year.

“I think I did add to the dialogue, and I think I helped keep some of the candidates more honest,” Gonzalez-Harper said.

Wieczorek, too, said if he could go back he would still make the decision to run.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Well of course not, I only got 1,000 votes. I wouldn’t do that again,’” Wieczorek said. “But I’ve learned so much. I got to talk with so many new people.”

Besides, Wieczorek said, while this year’s loss hurt, he learned quite a few things that would help in a future campaign.

“I definitely was proud and honored to run,” he said. “It was important to me, and I felt good about it.

“We’ll see what happens in two years,” he said.
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