The Oliver problem


Lloyd Oliver had run for office at least five times – likely more, he said; he’s lost count – and been beaten each time, falling short of judgeships and congressional seats, getting trounced as both a Republican and a Democrat.

Then he signed up to run as a Democrat for district attorney this year – and won, shocking himself and much of the criminal courthouse crowd.

The 68-year-old defense lawyer isn’t coy about why he has signed up for so many campaigns: Name recognition drives much of his business, and having his name on the ballot every few years is practically free advertising. Likewise, he had a simple explanation for his victory over well-liked primary opponent Zack Fertitta, a 36-year-old former assistant district attorney with a healthy war chest.

“They’ve seen my name on the ballot long enough, maybe they just thought I was the incumbent and voted for me,” Oliver said. “Sometimes you just can’t beat dumb luck.”

In a sense, this isn’t really a problem. Mike Anderson is an experienced prosecutor, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a competent District Attorney. I disagree with him on the matter of prosecuting trace drug cases, and I believe the worst case scenario Grits describes of the jails becoming overcrowded could well result from it, but at least there would be hope for some pushback from Commissioners Court and the Sheriff. The fact that the Democrats managed to nominate a potted plant to oppose him is a grievous tragedy from a political perspective, but not from a criminal justice one. It’s not like the alternative would have been four more years of John Bradley or Chuck Rosenthal.

The lost political opportunity really is a mortal sin, and I have to believe it was avoidable.

University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray said he thought Oliver may be a contender because black voters – who cast a huge share of Democratic primary ballots when there is no presidential race – would mistakenly assume he was African-American.

“If the choices are Zack Fertitta or Lloyd Oliver, that’s a pretty easy call for a lot of folks looking for somebody they think understands the issues in their community: ‘Let’s go with the black guy’ – who ain’t black, of course,” Murray said. “Mostly people are just throwing darts.”

Political consultant Joe Householder, of Purple Strategies, said in such a low-profile race, the odds of an unexpected result rise sharply.

“When (voters) start tracing their finger down the ballot, they say, ‘I don’t know anything about either of these guys, but I have heard of this guy, so I guess I’ll vote for him,’ ” he said.

Maybe some folks thought it was Chris Oliver that was running. Who knows? I tend to think that Householder has the more accurate explanation here, but a look at the precinct data once its available ought to settle the question. Be that as it may, this goes to what I said before about how we are (not) communicating with voters. I have no idea what Zack Fertitta, or for that matter any other non-African American candidate, did or does to tell African American voters about their candidacy. African American voters are a big part of the Democratic base and a big percentage of the primary electorate. Add to that the fact that there were three contested primaries in African American legislative districts, plus the HCDE primary in Precinct One and the Constable primaries in Precincts 1 and 7, and it didn’t take a genius to predict what the turnout pattern would look like. If anyone had adequate resources but didn’t have adequate outreach in these parts of the county, then no one should be too shocked by the result. Never overestimate your own name ID. I’m not saying Fertitta’s campaign did any of these things – I don’t know one way or the other – but I am saying these are things we need to learn from this debacle so that we can at least get something out of it.

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5 Responses to The Oliver problem

  1. joshua bullard says:

    no kuffner,allow me to give you a lesson in local politics and the way things really work in houston.We see somebody running long enough and we finally say,vote him in to get him out,i thought it was amazing oliver won—

    i spoke with fertiitta on election day,i would have paid money to see his face when the numbers tallied a massive loss…

    fertitta didnt spend much money-he held back,he bought some signs but he went cheap with it-and he paid a high price for it..his campaign consultant “janae ladet” may have dropped the ball some where as well?who knows?????????????

    joshua ben bullard

  2. CJ says:

    It was a day of crazy is how I keep describing it, and it was heavily influenced by low turnout on the Dem side. I think the ‘typical’ primary day voter was for the most part, unconcerned with how the majority of the contested races turned out, and we saw something close to 25 – 30 % undervoting in most races. I think the majority of people showed up on the Dem side in support of 1 or 2 races and not a slate of candidates, and I am thinking several people just rolled through the ballot picking names.

    The exceptions were in the well established congressional races (Reps. Al Green, Sheila Jackson Lee, Gene Green) with name recognition, with ~ 5 – 10 % undervote, and then most of the constable races, where I think you can argue people voted specifically because they were contacted by constable candidates.

    I think we also saw the power of radio advertising and ugly mailouts. I am concerned we did some damage to our court system, although the cynics around me tell me it’s always been this way. Even in the 215th contest, we still had ~ 19 % undervote, though.

    I’m hoping we never do another serious primary the day after Memorial Day. I guess we need to thank our Republican supermajority legislature for getting this date, although you could argue it’s the Dem’s fault for not willingly getting hammered by the R version of the redrawn map.

    At the end of the day, there is plenty of blame to go around. We can bark about candidates coasting or not listening, uninvolved activists, uninformed voters, and an overall lack of enthusiasm. You have rightly pointed out communication from some organizations seemed to be lacking.

    I will say that I think we all tend to overestimate the importance of websites and emails. One candidate that’s in the US Senate runoff doesn’t even have a website but he’s been blessed with a similar name to other well known and locally elected officials.

    If we don’t want it to happen again, everyone needs to stop assuming someone else is doing the work.

  3. Mel says:

    It may have been negative name recognition. I see the name “Fertitta” and recoil in horror.

  4. mollusk says:

    I second Mel’s emotion.

  5. Athena says:

    Joshua, you witless Tea Party gnome with a high school education. Shut up! You did not vote in the Democratic Primary and the Democratic Party doesn’t need you or your opinions. You are unfortunate proof of the adage about rectums and opinions.

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