She’s filed her paperwork with the Long Beach City Clerk’s office, her name will be on the April 8 ballot to become the city’s next mayor, and she was among the candidates who attended the Feb. 25 Long Beach mayoral candidate forum at the Art Theatre. However, unlike Bonnie Lowenthal, Gerrie Schipske, Robert Garcia, Doug Otto and Richard Camp, candidate Jana Shields was not onstage presenting her platform, sharing her vision and answering questions that night. She was sitting in the audience.
“What was interesting about that forum is that I had not gotten an email with the questions [as other candidates had], but then somebody [from the hosting organization] called me and said, ‘Well, everybody’s invited. You should show up.’ And then there was no follow-up email,” Shields said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So I went up, when I first got there, to talk to the moderator, and the moderator says, ‘No, we just want these five.’”
Shields said she has been invited to most of the candidate forums this campaign season but, because of her perceived ranking among the 10 mayoral candidates, she just misses the cut for events that limit participation to five individuals.
“The ones that I’m not invited to are more for the top five,” Shields said. “I’m about, on the list of importance, number six. [Forum organizers] just think that the five top candidates are going to be the next mayor. But I have been invited to probably two-thirds of the forums.”
Although Shields had not been asked to participate in the Feb. 25 forum, neither had Camp. Only Lowenthal, Schipske, Garcia, Otto and Damon Dunn were asked to join in on the forum. Those invited candidates happen to be, by a large margin, the top campaign fundraisers vying to be mayor, according to the Long Beach City Clerk’s website.
“The only reason that [Camp] was up there with the other four that have lots of money is that he wormed his way in there with emails and that kind of stuff,” Shields said. “He’s one of the five that people– some of them– are ignoring.”
Advocacy-journalist website Longbeachize.com, which is published by the nonprofit Southern California Streets Initiative, organized that particular forum, and Brian Addison, who serves as an editor and contributing writer for the site, said his organization’s reason for limiting the number of candidates was not driven by a desire to give certain candidates more exposure than others, but was rather to have a more in-depth conversation on “active-living” issues.
“By limiting the number of candidates, we were able to ask just 10 questions and allow a reasonable amount of time for each candidate to answer, given the owners of the Art Theatre were graciously permitting us to have the forum in between film screenings,” Addison said. “We had about 15 minutes to set up and disassemble with about an hour and a half of discussion time, including intros. Had we invited all of the candidates, we would have been able to maybe handle a couple questions, which ultimately would have not been a healthy discussion.”
Addison said that, in addition to the time constraint, a consideration for the forum’s audience was important in choosing the candidates, since the event was focused primarily on bicyclist- and pedestrian-safety within the city.
“It was our feeling that the active-living community was more interested in and would get more out of a detailed discussion with the leading candidates versus a board overview from all of the candidates, at least some of whom, by their own admission, were not well versed on the issues being discussed, including Jana Shields, whom I spoke to at the event,” Addison said. “We determined ‘leading’ candidates based on the funds raised to date and community-outreach efforts [such as] email updates, fundraising events, online activity, et cetera– simple as that. It was not a qualitative assessment. We invited the top five candidates out of that criteria, but one– Dunn– declined. Additionally, we had only one of the other candidates, Richard Camp, make a specific plea to be included, and we agreed to that request.”
Addison added that, although Longbeachize.com did not invite all qualified mayoral candidates to its forum, the organization has given all 10 the opportunity to address the questions raised during its forum on a Facebook event page it created– which begs the question, “Is the use of an online social-networking site another form of omission, since not all citizens have access to the Internet?”
As for Shields, she says she is not bitter about her exclusion.
“My opinion is that any group has the right to decide who they want to invite,” she said. “So, I’m not sore about it.”
Less forgiving, however, is Mineo Gonzales, another mayoral candidate.
“I was not invited to that event, and I think it is just plain stupid,” Gonzales said. “There are 10 candidates, not four or five main contenders. The real ridiculous thing is that they base the main contenders on how much money the candidate has raised. So the better you are at raising money the more qualified you are for public office. It is a mockery of the system. We have trained ourselves to believe that a candidate is only viable if they can siphon money from unions, special-interest groups and the already tax-paying public. The sad thing is that the free press has bought into this as well.”
Christopher Graeber, secretary for the Wrigley Association, a neighborhood organization that hosted a candidate forum Monday evening for those seeking the 7th District Long Beach Council seat, said exclusion is not part of the process when his group organizes such events.
“We have invited all the candidates to the forum,” Graeber said. “We have always done this. We do not want to exclude any candidate from attending.”
When organizing a candidate forum or debate, sometimes the decision on whom to invite can enter a gray area.
Gabrielle Weeks, who serves as the group chair for the executive committee of the Long Beach Sierra Club, organized one of the first mayoral candidate forums this election season, at the Aquarium of the Pacific on Nov. 21.
In a Nov. 15 email to the Signal Tribune regarding the event, she listed the confirmed participating candidates as Damon Dunn, Robert Garcia, Bonnie Lowenthal, Doug Otto, Gerrie Schipske and Suja Lowenthal, who had actually dropped out of the race for mayor in October to pursue the 70th Assembly District seat that her termed-out former mother-in-law currently occupies.
Those who indeed took part in that forum, which focused on environmental issues, were Garcia, Bonnie Lowenthal, Otto and Schipske. In an emailed response to the Signal Tribune’s questions regarding how the invited candidates were selected for the Sierra Club forum, Weeks indicated that, since her organization’s event was hosted early on (the candidate-nomination period officially began Dec. 16), the criteria for inclusion were not as clear-cut.
“Normally, I invite all candidates who qualified for the ballot. I did my mayoral forum before that, so I invited any who had formed a campaign committee and had an account,” Weeks said. “The serious candidates made time for my forum. Ones who knew nothing about campaigns or just wanted to push a single issue did not want to commit two and a half whole hours to me. Those folks are now attending debates and forums.”
Still, even after it is clear which candidates have qualified for the April 8 Primary Election ballot, organizations who choose to host candidate forums can essentially devise their own criteria for whom to include.
Dan Pressburg, president of the North Long Beach Community Action Group, organized and co-hosted a mayoral forum on Jan. 28 along with The Deforest Neighborhood Association, the North Long Beach Association, The Central Project Area Council Inc., South Street Neighborhood Watch, Houghton Neighborhood Association and The Grant Association. Participating in that debate were those individuals who indeed seem to be viewed as the top six: Dunn, Garcia, Lowenthal, Otto, Schipske and Shields.
“They were chosen by three categories: who would be most educational [or] most knowledgeable, name recognition and most viable,” Pressburg said. “Besides, getting those six to agree was like herding cats.”
Pressburg, however, said the 9th District Council forum his organization co-hosted included both candidates seeking that office. He added that all candidates from across the city are invited to the March 8 candidate brunch that he will host in his home, the Historic Long Beach Dairy and Creamery.
Although the Signal Tribune reached out to all the mayoral candidates, requesting their opinions about local forums, only Camp, Garcia, Gonzales, Schipske and Shields had responded by press time.
Schipske replied with a one-sentence email. “I do believe all candidates should be allowed to participate,” the 5th-district councilmember wrote.
Garcia responded by email and provided his cell number for a phone interview. “My personal preference is that all candidates be invited to all forums, but I do think different organizations have different ground rules for who they invite and maybe why they invite them,” Garcia said in the interview Wednesday. “It’s difficult for me to judge that because I’m obviously not part of that process.”
When asked if he believes that organizations have the right to select whomever they please to be participants in forums, Garcia indicated that this exclusion of certain candidates is not something that is seen only at the city level.
“I think this is done at every level of government, whether it’s people running for President or people running for other positions,” Garcia said. “I think organizations have different criteria for debates. I’m thankful that organizations are doing debates. Every one that we have done has been professional. They’ve been thoughtful. I think the organizations are great that are working on them. As far as the amount of people in the debates, I don’t, obviously, have any say on that, but I’ve enjoyed the debates when we’ve had everyone there. It’s been interesting getting to know everybody.”
Asked if he thinks it’s beneficial to have lesser-known candidates participating in forums, the vice mayor answered affirmatively.
“I think that every time that they have been involved in the debates, there have been new ideas and new things being discussed,” he said. “I think they all bring something to the debate, absolutely.”
Candidate Richard Camp, who, according to Shields, Addison and Camp himself, succeeded in persuading sponsors of that Feb. 25 forum to allow him to partake, asserted in an email to the Signal Tribune that the frontrunners in the mayoral campaign are behind an ostracism of the candidates who aren’t as well known and whose coffers are less substantial.
“There is a concerted effort being made by the high-profile candidates and media to exclude non-connected candidates, to interfere with us publicly speaking about things like gag orders on the fire and police departments, to intimidate potential budget-shenanigans whistle-blowers or misappropriations of RDA funds,” Camp said. He cited examples that referred to an “Acres of Books-Art Exchange fiasco” and “seismic, subsidence, geological testing data showing what the results of oil extraction and fracking activities conducted lately have done to potentially undermine the earth we stand on.” Camp said that every attempt he’s made to obtain this information has been stonewalled by various city department chiefs.
“Important issues are being left out of public debate to protect various personalities, like Mayor Foster, from criminal allegations and potential prosecution, from Long Beach to Sacramento to DC and back, disgracing our Constitution and dishonoring the people– exactly why I got involved– to end these charades of leadership,” Camp said. “Somebody needs to go to prison, and the city and people need to move forward.”
While there may not be consensus as to who should be allowed to participate in the various mayoral candidate discussions, as well as who indeed qualifies to share their platforms at such events, there are nevertheless 10 individuals who have met the criteria to have their names on the April 8 ballot as mayor. Regardless of how community organizations run their candidate forums and debates, it is ultimately in the hands of those who make the time and effort to fill out absentee ballots or show up at the polls to decide who will become the City of Long Beach’s highest-ranking official.