Tractor rally stings HBRC incumbents

I suspect most BayBuzz readers know by now I was a successful candidate for the Regional Council in the recent elections.

Campaigning – if one is serious about it – is at once challenging, exhausting, humbling, occasionally exhilarating … and most of all, educational.

Not all candidates need to be serious about campaigning to win. Those with deep roots in the community, a highly visible role (past or present), and incumbents are virtually unbeatable.

That reality puts the lie to the admonition: “Play the ball, not the man.” To most voters, local elections are far more about people – individuals and their perceived qualities or shortcomings – than they are about issues.

Yes, there are some issue-driven voters – I was frequently asked my position on fluoridation, an issue having nothing to do with the Regional Council, and occasionally my position on the dam. But even then, how I responded seemed to be taken at least as seriously as what I said, if not more so.

Tractor rally stings HBRC incumbents

Almost always, my impression was that the potential voter was sizing up my reliability as a person, more than as an advocate on any given issue.

Even the hugely important protests of the Growers Action Group, although triggered by the critical issue of water management, effectively challenged the personal responsiveness of incumbent councillors accused of ‘not listening’ and being ‘asleep at the wheel’.

In any event, being new to the community (by Hawke’s Bay standards), unknown to the thousands unfamiliar with BayBuzz, sporting a ponytail, and having never served in local office, I did need to campaign seriously!

What does that mean in our local scene?

Campaigning … simple in theory

Simple in theory: billboards, advertising, leafleting, an online presence, some key endorsements, getting in front of people. All of those assuming you have something to say that might interest voters.

Billboards are all about building awareness. Nothing does it better. While they don’t communicate much message-wise, I was constantly reminded of the impact of the impressions created by these unwanted intrusions. “I wouldn’t vote for him, his signs are sloppy.” “My daughter likes your face.” “You look trustworthy.” OK, forget the growers dispute or the dam then.

Billboards also represent the chief logistical challenge of the campaign – lining up locations (people are actually quite shy about publicizing their support for a candidate by offering their yard or paddock as a location), getting all the lumber and hardware together (to say nothing of producing the signs themselves), assembling the ‘installation’ team, then actually setting them up … invariably in the rain.

Then there’s advertising. The difficulty is more in crafting the message than placing the ads, given that options for media placement are rather limited in Hawke’s Bay. Maintaining an email list, campaign website and Facebook page is de rigueur these days, both for energizing supporters and ‘virtually’ door knocking for new converts.

Probably the most critical ‘advertising’ is the crucial 150-word profile that goes into the Voters’ Guide distributed with voting papers. For many voters with pen in hand, that’s the last and only candidate information they will appraise. Naturally candidates polish their profiles to a blinding gloss.

A subset of advertising is leafleting – getting those ‘junk mail’ brochures out. Not an easy chore when you have 35,000 voters to reach, approximately half of whom have “No circulars” warnings on their letterboxes. Dare you leave a campaign brochure?!

I relied on volunteers primarily for putting up and taking down signs, and for door knocking. I used a paid service for my letterbox drops, which presented its own problems. My key brochure drop wound up sitting in the distributor’s garage and was delivered a week late!

Door knocking

Actually walking up to the door and chatting with voters – is the most painstaking of all campaign activities, but also, in my opinion, the one with highest value.

The first thing you learn is how densely packed-in the homes and flats are. Planners call it ‘in-fill’! Repeatedly I was astonished at how long it took to door knock just two sides of a single block, even though I might find someone home at only one-in-three doors.

Then there’s the quirky nature of local home design. Front doors were actually very hard to find. Often I found myself passing by front-of-house bedrooms – shades open for viewing – in my quest to locate the door. I quickly learnt to keep my eyes on the walkway until the door was discovered!

Almost as frequent as “No circulars” were “Beware of dog” signs! I had plenty of dog encounters, and soon decided that discretion outweighed valour.

More importantly, there were serious learnings as well.

As I door knocked throughout my district, I became far more aware of the social and economic diversity it houses, even from door to neighboring door, and in just about every neighborhood – flash house, rundown cottage, four modest-income flats, stacked one behind the other, flash again. A great reminder why punters care about their rates – wealth is not widely spread.

I was also greeted by many older folks, living alone, perhaps socially isolated. Something to think about seriously as our region’s aging population grows significantly.

Then finally, there’s how people reacted. “Love your ponytail!” called out one lady, wearing her elastic support hose, not a day under 90, as I left her doorstep. People were usually quite surprised to see a candidate at their door. My mere ‘showing up’ earned dozens of votes. And the intrepid volunteers who door knocked in support of me found the same encouraging response.

More often I was asked about my accent or origin than about issues. Many had heard about some sort of stoush between growers and the regional council and were bothered, but didn’t know the specifics behind it. Many proffered that the environment needed to be better protected. Many complained that ‘too many’ were in office ‘too long’.

And every now and then, a ‘chat’ turned into a twenty minute venting of a grievance or serious questioning about some issue. But overall, I’d have to say that most people were only vaguely aware of the regional council’s focus or the issues before it.

In any event, I’m now a firm believer in door knocking, even if on some days during the campaign I woke up cursing the sunshine. Good weather meant I’d need to spend a few more hours on the streets … to the song in my head: “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

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