Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The costs of running for office (or, What I learned in the SSFUSD race)

(Note: I ran for the South San Francisco Unified School District's Board of Trustees in the November 2014 election. I know it may not seem so, because I didn't mention it on this blog, but I did. I had a website and everything! I didn't win, BTW. This time.)

Top vote-getter Rick Ochsenhirt (center) is formally sworn in by former Assemblyman Gene Mullin at the SSFUSD Board meeting on Dec. 17, 2014. Photo by John Baker.

Early on Wednesday, I filed papers with the Secretary of State to officially close my campaign committee (closing it by the end of the year allowed me to avoid a $50 fee).

It’s a bit of closure on what was an illuminating, unusual experience that was both disappointing and rewarding. More thoughts on that below. But first, let’s look at the math…

In the latest (and likely final) tally from the San Mateo County Elections Office, I got 2,801 votes (thanks to all!). For those votes, my campaign spent a grand total of $2,228.10. For those counting, it means I spent roughly 79.5 cents per vote. (For reference, my last three campaign finance reports are available here. Final filing starts on page 27 of the pdf document.)

To put that number in perspective, in the 2012 US Presidential election, Barack Obama’s campaign spent $10.37 per vote (or $16.73 when independent, outside money is included) and Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $7.11/$20.09).  In other words, I ran a campaign about 13 times more efficient than the president’s!

I have no idea (officially) how well how the other candidates did, as no other candidate has posted their campaign finance data online (despite at least one promise to do so), and I’ve no inclination to take a bus or car down to the elections office on remote Tower Road in unincorporated San Mateo to pull campaign finance papers and find out. But I’d guess that I’d be slightly below the median in terms of cost per vote.

Anecdotally and observationally, I’d guess candidates Sue Olinger (who seem to have spent next to nothing), Monica Peregrina-Boyd (who dropped out of the race after filing) and possibly Phil Weise may have been marginally more efficient. I’d guess each of the other four candidates were less efficient.

My three biggest expenditures were signage ($600.84), filing fees with both the County and State ($529.36), and my share of the printing costs for the countywide Democratic Party mailer ($450).

My three biggest donors were myself ($788.10), my father-in-law ($300), and fellow candidate Patrick Lucy ($200 – donated after the election {Thanks Patrick!}). About 20 other donors, with contributions ranging from $25 to $150, made up the difference.

From a candidate’s prespective, and as someone who’s covered local elections in San Mateo County since 1998, I really don’t think the lessons learned this election are really that surprising. Some old observations again proved true. For example:

  • Some voters rely more on candidate name recognition and occupational titles rather than looking at a candidate’s education and experience;
  • Who supports a candidate is sometimes more important than what the candidate supports;
  • And, above all, money makes the difference in a low-information campaign. I may throw almost all my campaign mail in the recycling, but many other voters learn nothing about an election other than what they see on slick, glossy mailers. (That said, my 100 or so personal letters to voters, many with Batman stamps, got a very good response rate according to my informal exit polling). 

Policy-wise, I don’t think I’d change much about my election platform if I could go back. I probably would’ve hit the walking and writing trail earlier in an effort to sway early voters. But in terms of time, as a full-time employee with two young kids, it would’ve been hard to offer more. Still, lessons learned.

(Left: Former Trustee Phil Weise, who had just ended a 17-year-run on the Board, addresses the audience at the Dec. 17, 2014, SSFUSD meeting.)

While getting elected was the immediate goal, it wasn’t the ultimate one. The ultimate goal is to improve our kids’ education in the South San Francisco Unified School District. I think the spirited, active campaign with policy at the forefront that we just saw was a good step in that direction.

The winners in this election are all dedicated, caring people with experience in reaching out to the population. Maybe they're all a little more toward the social side of the scale and I'm more to the “policy-wonk” side than they are, but I still have faith in them.

And I will still be watching. I’ve redirected my campaign Facebook and Twitter accounts into watchdog status. I will still observe what I see in the District with a critical eye and put my analysis online.

And who knows? My campaign signage and business cards didn’t have an election year on them and I have plenty left of both, ready to be used again. You may see me again in two-to-four years if the current SSFUSD Board doesn’t do sterling work.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

El Camino learns lessons, but South City keeps Bell, 36-0

South City's Eric Kamelamela is brought down on a run during the first half of the 2014 Bell Game.
South City's Eric Kamelamela is brought down on a run during the first half of the 2014 Bell Game. Photo by John Baker.

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO -- If sports are a microcosm of life, the El Camino High football team did a lot of living this fall.

The Colts lost a head coach due to criminal allegations, program members were alleged to have participated in racially based hazing (a charge those affiliated with the program dispute), the team was beset by injuries, and -- to top it off -- rival South San Francisco High shut out El Camino, 36-0, in Saturday’s Bell Game.

But if you ask Eric Jacobson, who took over the program in the fourth week of the season, the adversity the Colts faced this season will make them better men in the long run.

“They learned a lot about life this year … these guys were reading stuff in the paper that was not true. It kind of gave us a black eye, but I really think it made us stronger,” Jacobson said. “The guys should really be commended for the effort they made.”

On Saturday, however, it was the Warriors whose effort paid off the most. The tone was set early. El Camino went three-and-out on its first possession, then South City started its drive on its own 46 yard line. On his team’s second play, Eric Kamelamela took a handoff and busted out a 49-yard run up the right sideline for a score.

“I was just doing it for my team; it was the Bell Game,” Kamelamela said. “I think it set the mood for the rest of the game.”

The Colts again went out on downs on their next possession, in fact El Camino punted five times in the first half to just once for South City. The Warriors took advantage and showed a little trickery, scoring on a 40-yard running back option pass from Tommy Miller to Jose Galban with 2:48 left in the first quarter.

“The (South City) quarterback doesn’t throw the ball very often -- it’s the backs and the other people,” Jacobson said. “That’s why those plays are so good; you’re focusing on the running back so much.”

Galban said the play helped buoy his team

“It feels great to win,” Galban said. “We executed today and played very well -- that’s what we were planning to do all season.”

South City (4-6) got two more rushing touchdowns in the second quarter, one from Cesar Torres (two yards) and the other from Kamelamela (eight yards). The Warriors took a 29-0 lead into halftime, having outgained the Colts 248-24 in yardage at the break.

El Camino (3-7) stepped up better in the second half, with Jaqari Taylor and CJ David pulling down interceptions. But South San Francisco also put up an effective defense, with Galban pulling down an interception just in front of the goal line late in the third quarter to kill EC's best scoring chance.

South City's Terrell Townsend knocks down a pass from EC's Andrew Pierotti late in the first half.
South City's Terrell Townsend knocks down a pass from EC's Andrew Pierotti late in the first half. Photo by John Baker.

After South City’s Mauricio Mabutas ran the ball in 16 yards for a touchdown with 8:21 left in the game, making the score 36-0 after the extra point, the contest transitioned to a running clock, and the Warriors’ victory came quickly.

Kamelamela, just a junior, led all rushers with 21 carries for exactly 200 yards. Teammate Alex Benevides had 67 yards on 11 carries. Terrell Townsend had two sacks defensively for the Warriors. El Camino’s longest play of the day was a 33-yard pass from quarterback Andrew Pierotti to Anthony Graham.

Jacobson, who started his second stint as the Colts’ head coach midway through this season, hopes to return next season to give the team stability.

“I plan on being back,” he said. “I’ve been here a lot of years and I want to be here.”

It was South City’s 11th straight Bell Game victory and 43rd overall in the series.

Below, a slideshow from the 2014 Bell Game:

Like this story? I also covered the Bell Game in 2013 (click here), 2011 (click here) and 2010 (click here).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dons shut out Colts, 19-0

El Camino receiver Andres Abarca (in red) is swamped by Aragon defenders as he tries to make a catch late in the game on Sept. 13, 2014. Photo by John Baker.

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — A close game got away from El Camino High on Saturday, as Aragon took advantage of a couple trick plays and a stifling secondary to beat the Colts 19-0 on El Camino’s gridiron.

El Camino (1-1) just couldn’t get much going. Its pass-heavy offense, which performed well the week before in a victory at Washington, wasn’t enough on Saturday. Quarterback Andrew Pierotti completed nine of 25 passes for 108 yards, for an El Camino team that was only able to manage 122 yards of net offense, but was intercepted four times.

“A couple of them were great plays (by Aragon defenders),” said El Camino coach Mark Turner, “and a couple of them were bad throws.”

Aragon coach Steve Sell said his secondary is all second-year starters.

“Those guys are all great athletes and now they’re experienced,” Sell said. “They take pride in their ‘no-fly zone.’ Our defense kept us in the game because we were not very good offensively in the first half.”

Aragon (2-0) got on the board with 6:37 left in the second quarter, when halfback Devin Grant took a handoff, then threw a pass as the El Camino secondary rushed in after him to Tyee Stokman, who scrambled 60 yards up the right side to make it 6-0.

“We played them last year, and their safeties crashed on the outside,” said Aragon coach Steve Sell. “We tried to take advantage to how hard they react. We needed something; we were kind of desperate.”

That score held up to halftime. It could have been worse for the Colts, who were bolstered by two key first-half defensive plays — a sack by Elton Vargas that led to a turnover on downs and a big fumble recovery by EC's Gabe DeOlivera right before the break to stop an Aragon drive. Additionally, the Dons were penalized eight times for 90 yards, making it difficult for them to get much momentum.

A second throw from a running back set up a five-yard Grant touchdown run four minutes into the second half. Like the big play in the first half, the Dons took advantage as the Colts’ secondary rushed the ball carrier.

“When guys get antsy they want to be making a play,” Turner said. “Sometimes they make a play that’s not supposed to be their play.”

(Story continues below picture.)
Devin Grant scores in the third quarter for Aragon.Photo by John Baker.

Grant led all rushers with 82 yards on 11 carries. Andres Abarca was El Camino’s leading receiver with three catches for 43 yards.

Grant also took in a 19-yard touchdown with just under a minute left in the third quarter. El Camino got into the Aragon red zone in the game’s final minutes, but could not cross the goal line.

Both high schools in South San Francisco are still winless at home on their new Measure J-funded artificial turf fields. Visiting South San Francisco High beat El Camino, 29-28, in the Colts’ field debut on Nov. 16. Visiting Capuchino beat South City, 14-7, in the first game at the Warriors’ new digs on Friday night. El Camino hosts Lincoln High of San Francisco next Saturday at 2 p.m. in an effort to beat the dry spell.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Baseball back in Montréal; for two nights at least

Baseball, right back where it should be: Montréal.

Almost ten years ago, on Sept. 29, 2004, I was at the last Major League Baseball game in Montréal.

Or so I thought.

Tonight, the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets for the first of two spring training games at Olympic Stadium, and the atmosphere was electric. The negativity that seemed to permeate media coverage of the Expos during their last days in the city was gone.

Instead, there was jealousy...
and appreciation of what the crowd meant ...

(A crowd of nearly 50,000 is expected on Saturday.)

Even casual baseball fans in Montreal's traditional rival of Toronto were happy with tonight's outcome:

The atmosphere was compared to a playoff game.
It was a far cry from when I was in Montréal for the last Expos game there. I had been an Expos fan for years, and an online advocate for their staying in Montréal. That day was an emotional experience, probably the last time I cried that was not connected to a relative's death. If anyone who doubted that Montréal could be a baseball city had been there, they would've changed their minds after seeing the heartfelt love the city showed their team that day.

Here's a short slideshow with some pictures I took before, during and after that final game:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Whether it's broadband or telegraph, it's too expensive (a century apart)

The front page of the Jan. 29, 1914, edition of the Bemidji Daily Pioneer.
The front page of the Jan. 29, 1914, edition of the Bemidji Daily Pioneer.

It’s not a secret that Internet prices in the United States are out of line with those in other developed countries. In fact, Americans pay more per megabyte than anyone else in the world with access to broadband.

This is on top of having our Netflix stream slower than elsewhere; in 2012 the average download speed for American connections was just 12th in the world.

(It should be noted here that the United States' speed problem is one of having some areas with great speeds, but low performers dragging the rest of the country down.  For example, if Vermont and New Hampshire were countries, they would have the second and third-highest average download speeds in the world. California, home of Silicon Valley, also suffers from this diffusion on a micro scale, having fast service in urban cores while most of the state’s land area remains unserved or underserved.)

Wow. It must be completely unprecedented that the country where a revolutionary new telecommunications technology was invented trails the rest of the world in terms of costs and efficiency. Right?

Nope. A century ago, people were complaining that US telephone and telegraph rates were too high. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

One-hundred years ago today, the Bemidji Daily Pioneer in Minnesota ran a column one article by Illinois Congressman Clyde Tavenner noting several areas where the United States trailed significantly in terms of costs compared to what was then the "developed" world.

As examples, the United States ranked:

  • Last of 16 countries in average cost to send a telegram (44 cents vs. 9 cents in top-ranked Luxembourg);
  • Only 14th lowest in terms of costs per local phone call (2.1 cents vs. 0.4 cents in Norway);
  • Last in average costs of a long-distance call (60 cents vs. 8 cents in Sweden for a call to a place 100 miles distant [in 15th place was Hungary, with 39 cents for that same call]).

The whole screed was apparently a call from the Congressman to nationalize the home phone service, then (as now -- what breakup?) dominated by American Telephone & Telegraph. Apparently, per Tavenner, Ma Bell was engaged in an "evident attempt to stave off government ownership by its willingness to submit to every government demand" (wire-tapping included?).

Tavenner was obviously a proponent of government ownership of the telephone system, noting that the one place where American service was superior than most of its contemporaries (other than Japan) was in its government-owned postal service.

"Our privately owner telegraphs and telephones fall far below the standard of efficiency and cheapness set by the European government service," Tavenner wrote.

The government never did buy AT&T, although it did cause it to break up in the 1980s -- before the telecommunications giant reformed like a melted T-1000.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

SSF Ferry ridership getting better, but still not quite up to par

The South San Francisco ferry terminal. Photo credit: Chris Stevens, via Flickr.

Ferries are great. They're one of the best bargains with which to tour a waterfront city.

In some areas -- such as Sydney, Seattle, New York City -- they're also a vital link in regional mass transit systems. Not so much in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here ferries may be convenient, but they're also expensive and redundant.

With BART, multiple bridges and an active bus system crossing the Bay, ferries are mostly a novelty -- and a costly one at that.

While Oakland and Marin ferries to San Francisco get decent passenger numbers, an 18-month-old ferry from Oakland to South San Francisco has been struggling to find riders. It started off with much fanfare, but once the novelty (and free first-week rides) wore off, ridership dropped and costs continued to mount.

One reason is that because the service is heavily geared toward those commuting to SSF from the East Bay, those who live in South San Francisco itself find it quite difficult to board the ferry. There is no real transit service from the bulk of South San Francisco to the ferry terminal, located on the far east side of the city, save for an inconvenient, infrequent shuttle that does not share any stops with mainstream SamTrans lines. Nor are there any sidewalks on the main walk to the terminal.

Ridership, as one might expect suffered, dropping to an average of just 136 passengers per day -- subsidized to the tune of more than $80 per trip -- in the ferry's second financial quarter.

So far the ferry, which costs commuters $7 each way, has tallied big bills. These include a new ferry terminal that cost about $26 million and a $2.6 million annual operating subsidy funded mainly by San Mateo County Measure A sales taxes. And, whether it hemorrhages money or not, the ballot measure authorizing the SSF Ferry requires it be funded for a minimum of five years, according to Joe Hurley, director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

But in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013-2014, a couple exogenous events bumped up ridership. First, a short strike by BART workers in July, then a brief closure of the Bay Bridge during the week leading up to Labor Day. Also in July, a big change as Genentech, the biotech titan that dominates the east side of South City, began to offer fully subsidized rides for all its employees.
The results?

Ridership levels

As this graph shows, ridership has grown to about 332 riders daily, on average -- about double what it had been a year earlier.

"I think we're moving toward the right direction," said April Chan, a planning a development officer for the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which partially funds the SSF Ferry. "It's not there yet, but much better than in our last report."

Some members of the Authority's Citizen's Advisory Committee (disclaimer, your blog author is a member of said committee) said that the progress has been insufficient.

"This is not even close to acceptable," said CAC member Jim Whittemore at the CAC's monthly meeting on Tuesday. "I understand it's new and they're trying things ... but it's not good enough and needs to get better soon."

With the jump in ridership, the government subsidy has effectively fallen to "just" $33.72 per rider, per trip (below). By contrast, the median subsidy for a bus ride in San Mateo County is around $8 per passenger, with the largest subsidy for a regular SamTrans route being about $19 (for line 359, which is about to be cut).

Cost per passenger

Fringe benefits that come from a ferry system shouldn't be overlooked, said CAC member John Fox. For example, Fox pointed out that the agency that coordinates ferries in the Bay Area is called the Water Emergency Transportation Authority.

"I don't think you can compartmentalize this as a farebox recovery ratio," he said. "You have to fold in that this was for natural disaster preparedness."

The upward ridership trend is promising, but it remains to be seen how much of it was permanent and how much was the result of the BART strike. Moreover, unless Genentech keeps up its subsidy, ridership will drop precipitously. I like the concept of a ferry to the town I live in, but I'd rather see the money invested in a more cost-effective manner.

Update (Jan. 21, 2014): The Transportation Authority released addition figures after the initial blog post showing that ridership has dropped even further post-BART strike resolution. In December, the South San Francisco Ferry averaged fewer than 250 riders per day. Granted, December is a light month in most transit systems, but ridership had also dropped significantly in November, as shown in the graph below:

Line graph showing SSF Ferry ridership from July 2012 to December 2013