Saturday, June 25, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 2

In this post, I'll share about educating, persuading, and arguing transit issues. Plus, we heard at the Transit Initiatives conference from a great - but very unusual - transit advocate, whom I'd like to tell you about.

One very important difference between electing an official and passing a transit proposal is this: Individuals campaigning for office are expected to "go on the stump" and ask people to vote for them. In transit initiatives, the "candidate" is the transit agency, but they are not allowed to "stump" for their issue because they're public agencies. A citizens' group must be formed to advocate for the transit proposal, tell people "Vote Yes", and get them out to vote.

For this reason, transit campaigns are divided into two parts: education and advocacy.

If a transit issue is on the ballot, there must be a transit plan. The plan is normally prepared by the transit agency, often with the help of specialized consultants, and paid for with public money. It will usually involve expansion of service, or at least propose maintaining existing levels. Since the plan is paid for by the public, it's the public's right to know what it is, and the transit agency's obligation to educate the public about it. So the education campaign is generally the transit agency's primary activity in an election campaign.

The Vote Yes part and the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) part are handled by the citizen organization. In St. Louis, this was done primarily by Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), an organization founded in the mid-1990s. It corresponds in many ways to Detroit's Transportation Riders United (TRU). Their job was to pull together groups that support transit and raise funds for campaign expenses - primarily advertising - but they also hired a consulting firm specializing in transit initiatives.

In conjuction with their consultant, CMT came up with a really effective campaign message: "Transit: some of us use it, all of us need it." They reinforced the message with interviews on the Metro rail trains of service providers who need transit to get to work - nurses, restaurant servers, and others. The point of the ads was that even if you don't use transit yourself, you depend on people who depend on, Vote Yes!

Another very effective move on their part was recruiting two co-leaders for the campaign: one, a leader of the African American community, the other...the mayor of a conservative St. Louis suburb.

John Nations, Mayor of Chesterfield, Missouri, was elected by a staunchly Republican electorate to be in charge of an upper-middle-class, white suburb. He was certainly not the obvious type of person to head up a pro-transit campaign. He was a lawyer (not currently practicing) who had prospered as head of a suurban development company. But he understood the business value of transit. In fact, when the St. Louis transit agency was defeated in a 2008 renewal measure and had to cut service drastically, Mr. Nations lead his City Council in budgeting extra funds to maintain bus service to Chesterfield. Naturally, that's what suggested him as co-leader of the campaign.

One of his first decisions as campaign co-leader was to engage an election consultant specializing in conservative, Republican campaigns. These people knew what the hot-button issues for conservative voters were, and were able to craft a campaign to address them.

That did not mean arguing against conservative issues. One very important point in transit campaigns - which all the experienced people agreed on - was, don't argue with your opponents. You won't convince them, and you'll get into negative statements that are more likely to damage than to help your cause. Rather, stick to your main message - in this case, "Some of us use transit, all of us need it". That can be said in many different ways using many people's stories.

In fact, stories are very important, and far more helpful than "arguments" or "doctrines". One consultant went so far as to say, "Don't talk ideology - talk only business". "Ideology" includes environmentalism, social justice, global warming, CO2 emissions, and a host of other good reasons for funding transit. "Business" is the positive impact transit has on the economy of a region. Especially in these "down" times, "it's the economy, stupid!" that makes or breaks elections.

Now, the message can - and should - be varied depending on the audience. Younger voters, especially college students, are very aware of environmental issues and are concerned about the earth. For them, the environmental message is very important, and needs to be included. Social justice is critical in minority and faith-based communities. But the central message for the general electorate is the economic benefit transit brings.

An important aspect of this is, "What's in it for me". All voters want to know that their taxes will be used for something that will help them as individuals and families. The more direct that is, the better. Hence the value of stories.

I'll close with a story that was very effective in the St. Louis campaign. Mayor Nations received a phone call from a constituent who thanked him for insuring good bus service to Chesterfield. Why the call? The woman said she had never ridden a public bus in her life, but wanted to thank the Mayor on behalf of her mother. Oh, she takes the bus or uses Call-A-Ride? No, she's in a nursing home. Huh...? Well the woman had heard conversations among the nursing aides and staff about how they wouldn't have been able to get to work without the bus. If the bus had been discontinued, there would have been a critical staff shortage at the nursing home, and the quality of care would have seriously deteriorated. Either that, or they would have had to raise the wages of the aides so they could afford their own cars, which would have driven the cost of the nursing home beyond this family's means. So, Thank You, Mister Mayor!

St. Louis Metro won the 2010 transit tax initiative. And Mr. Nations is now CEO of St. Louis Metro Transit!

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