When supporters of local ballot measures go door-to-door to distribute campaign materials, they’re trying to raise awareness and establish what the pundits call “likability” for their issue.
But there’s likability, and then there’s likability. Just ask anyone visited by supporters of Measure S, the $67 million bond and parcel tax aimed at improving Santa Cruz libraries, in the run-up to the June 7 election.
“People are always suspicious when they see someone walking up to their house,” says Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, who took her two young children with her to walk local precincts in support of Measure S. “Then they see these little kids saying ‘Will you support the libraries?’ You can see their hearts melt immediately.”
As the very last votes are counted, the passage of Measure S—officially, the Santa Cruz Libraries Community Facilities District Bond Issue and Parcel Tax—is all but in the books, with nearly 70 percent approval from local voters. What’s impressive about its victory is not just that it cleared the necessary two-thirds majority, but how it did it. Its remarkably well-organized and executed campaign stands out in contrast to that of Measure Q, the $310 million bond for Cabrillo College that needed a smaller 55 percent majority to pass, but seemed mired in voter confusion over how and by whom funds would be spent—not to mention hobbled by an opposition whose most visible member was himself a Cabrillo faculty member. Receiving only 52 percent of the vote, Measure Q failed at the ballot box.
Meanwhile, support for Measure S seemed to snowball, with a broad base of volunteers that ranged in age from kids like Protti’s to seniors, across income levels and also across the geographical landscape, since all 10 branches in the county stood to benefit and got the vote out in their own communities.
“We had a whole bunch of hard workers and volunteers who did the phone banking and walked the precincts and a lot of other stuff,” says Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews, who many credit with shepherding Measure S to victory. “And we got a really early start on endorsements, I think that was one of our strengths. In January, we started calling groups and getting on their agendas. We got every school board in the service area to endorse. We got children’s groups, we got seniors’ groups, we got business groups, we got labor groups. We had over 50 organizations.”
So effective was the Yes on S education and outreach effort that the measure ended up with no organized opposition. But its network of support didn’t just materialize because of voter loyalty to libraries. It was won through months of hard work to bring out that loyalty, by explaining to basically anyone who would listen exactly what the libraries do for their constituents, what was in (sometimes dire) need of improvements in the system, and how exactly Measure S money would be spent to make those improvements.
“We’re in small communities—you can go out and talk to all those groups. Go speak to the Aptos Rotary, or the Scotts Valley Chamber. It’s all time—you’ve got to call, you’ve got to get on their agenda, you’ve got to send someone,” says Mathews. “But I think that really deep grassroots work was a big part of it. By the end of the talk, they’ve had their questions answered. That’s what you get from personal contact.”
But what most distinguishes this tightly run and extremely economical campaign (it cost $65,000, of which $40,000 was donated by Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries) is the amount of preparation that went into it before Measure S was even drafted. Beginning in 2013 with the Facilities Master Plan that was drawn up with the future goal of a ballot measure like S in mind, Mathews and a core group of library staff and supporters began an extremely complicated process of getting the library system’s own house in order, as the existing Joint Powers Authority—the agreement through which the county and cities run the local library system—was set to expire in 2017.
“We thought, ‘well there has to be a new Joint Powers Agreement and a new financing agreement,’” says Mathews. “If we’re going to go to the voters for money, the first thing they’re going to ask is ‘Who’s in charge of this thing?’ All that had to be worked out simultaneously.”
These were complications most ballot measure organizers never have to face, especially if they’re dealing with a tax measure in a single jurisdiction, and it took a couple of years just to hammer out.
“It was dicey. It was very tricky,” says Mathews. “Let me just say it was a lot of negotiation. That was not really visible to the public. It was a lot of preparation. But it had to happen in order for there to be a strong campaign without a lot of extraneous issues or question marks.”
In the end, the process also brought a unity to a campaign that supporters would rely on to win.
“I think the challenge for us in bringing our campaign together at the beginning was seeing it as a system-wide campaign, and not just Felton getting their library, and Capitola getting their library, and Aptos getting theirs,” says Mathews. “We definitely had to solidify as a system-wide campaign, and we did it early on.”
As news of the measure’s success spreads, other cities are beginning to take notice of what the Measure S campaign accomplished here. “I’ve been called by other libraries asking how we did it,” says Janis O’Driscoll, who took over as interim director for the library system last year. She thinks the key is that the education effort reached back long before there was a tax measure to pitch. Because of that, the outreach became a genuine dialogue, she says.
“Don’t talk to the community only when you want to ask them for something,” advises O’Driscoll. “We worked hard at making people understand what the library does for [them]. By the time I started going out when we had a specific ballot measure to talk about, they already knew what the library was about.”
For Mathews, the key to passing a ballot measure like S is pulling together the most comprehensive effort possible. “Get together a team that combines experience and energy, because it’s a long slog, and you need different talents,” she says.
Protti’s advice is way simpler.
“If you want any measure to pass in Santa Cruz,” she says, “get Cynthia Mathews involved.”