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Election season shines light on endorsements

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 by Michael Kanin

As the City of Austin looks back on the unprecedented election season that was, questions remain about whether established vetting that worked under an at-large system — such as forums and lengthy questionnaires — is still effective or appropriate. Endorsements, however, appear likely to remain.

Indeed, ahead of a standout Austin election season in which 11 new City Council seats from 10 new districts were all up for grabs on a November — not May — ballot, endorsements from organizations across the city took up a key role in informing a voting populace that might otherwise have had little direction, given its tendency to otherwise ignore local races.

With that in mind, the Austin Monitor took a stab at ranking the efficacy of endorsing entities. Using a system where a first-place finish earned the endorser a full point and a second-place finish a half-point, more candidates picked by the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and the Austin Chronicle won their respective races than those in the rest of the field.

Our full spreadsheet is below. It is not intended to be definitive; rather it is meant as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of endorsements, and which of those endorsements appear to carry the most weight. (Endorsement spreadsheet has been updated to reflect the fact that the Real Estate Council of Austin endorsed Jeb Boyt, not Leslie Pool; and again to reflect that the Stonewall Dems endorsed Ora Houston. Be sure to keep checking for updates. The latest was made at 12:15pm on November 12.)

Readers will remember that the subject was complicated when the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman first endorsed District 4 candidate Laura Pressley. The board later appeared somewhat surprised when some of Pressley’s well-documented and controversial views on issues such as the Sept. 11 attacks were covered by local outlets and offered readers a note about its concerns that seemed to suggest interest in another candidate. The board then rescinded — but did not retract — its Pressley endorsement Oct. 28.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, himself a former editor, told the Monitor via email that the Statesman‘s initial Pressley endorsement and then late rescinding of the same “rings no bells in terms of other parallel situations.”

“I just don’t remember anything like this in my travels, though I am sure it has indeed happened,” Wemple added. “Funny thing about campaigns is that opponents often raise such issues on the trail, leaving everyone’s warts exposed. Perhaps the lesson here is to wait till the end of October before issuing endorsements? Whatever the case, it speaks poorly of the paper, which is trying to make the case to readers that it’s got sufficient command of these candidates to advise its audience how to vote. Fair to wonder about its other calls.”

Statesman viewpoints editor Tara Doolittle continued to defend the paper’s actions, however. “In the case of Pressley, we were aware of her views on fluoridation and we questioned her about them, as well as others who have worked with her closely. At the time, as we mentioned in the initial editorial, we were satisfied that that issue was not a priority for her and would not stand in the way of her effectiveness as a Council member when contrasted with the other candidates. In the time after publication, more information was brought forward that we were unaware of at the time, including the 9/11 forum tape,” she said in an email.

Doolittle declined to discuss specifics of the paper’s endorsement process, other than to note that “I can tell you generally that we consider where the candidates stood on a number of issues from affordability and homestead exemptions to transportation and urban growth to overall governance methods. We also considered background, experience and record for all candidates.”

As for what she described as “[s]witching gears on an endorsement so close to an election,” Doolittle concedes that the move “is not desirable.” She adds that it’s also not unprecedented. “There may be more examples, but there was a case where a Statesman endorsement for state Supreme Court candidate Rene Haas was withdrawn just before the March primary in the 1990s because of concerns about television ads that were being run by the candidate. And if you look around the country this election cycle, there are a handful of papers who chose to reverse course on their endorsements as new information came to light,” she wrote.

Doolittle specifically pointed to actions by the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer/Northeast Ohio Media Group, detailed by Jim Romenesko here, among others.

Publisher Nick Barbaro added that the Austin Chronicle will continue to endorse candidates. “It gives people something to talk about,” he told the Monitor, after having earlier pointed to the list of comments that accompany the paper’s endorsements.

When asked, Barbaro detailed the Chronicle‘s endorsement process, noting that between four and eight people take part and that there has to be a consensus. “We don’t have to be unanimous, but we have to all agree to it,” he said.

This time around, Barbaro said that the rail discussion was the most difficult. “I ended up voting for it … because I am a weeny who can’t vote against a rail proposal, no matter how bad it is,” he said.

Chronicle News Editor Michael King echoed the notion that the paper’s endorsements add value to local discussion. “Yes, in local races, although that’s distinct from saying they were persuasive or decisive in any particular race,” he noted in an email. “We try to be as informative as possible, under the presumption that readers look to us for at least some guidance (a few post that they simply vote the opposite of what we recommend), and do try to make a case for our choices. And in this town, we sometimes provide a counterweight to the Statesman, which I think happened this year re their Pressley endorsement.”

King also said he believes the Chronicle‘s endorsements will continue. “Yes, because [publisher] Nick [Barbaro] especially believes they’re important, and the rest of us (somewhat grudgingly) concur. The process is enormously labor-intensive for our very small staff, and does sometimes cause awkwardness on our reportorial beats, but we think it’s an important part of our journalistic function — First principle, readers should feel free to disagree,” King wrote.

As for why the Statesman declined to endorse another candidate when it rescinded its Pressley endorsement, Doolittle wrote that “[g]iven the strengths and weaknesses of the other candidates in the race, we did not have enough information or time to reach consensus, once the decision was made to rescind Pressley’s endorsement.”

She also offered this: “I tell all the candidates that we visit with that the endorsement process is one of the most important things we do on the Editorial Board. We take the process extremely seriously. Sometimes we miss. Unorthodox views have characterized some of Austin’s most beloved officials and are not automatic disqualifiers for office. Views that suggest a lack of capacity for fulfilling the duties of an office are a different story.

“We understand that our readers have high expectations, as well they should. If you look at the work we’ve done for the November elections, you’ll see that it is the most comprehensive we’ve had in quite some time. We visited with more than 140 state and local candidates. Other media outlets have the luxury of picking and choosing which issues to cover and in what format. We do not.”

As for a question about why the paper declined to retract the Pressley endorsement, Doolittle said, “[O]nce we endorse, overwhelming evidence is and should be required to withdraw it.”

(Full disclosure: Wemple and Michael Kanin worked together at the Washington City Paper.)

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