Candidates 'friend' potential voters

Support from vast friend networks has always been an asset to those seeking political office. For the first time in the history of La Cañada Flintridge elections, Facebook friends count too.

Four of the seven City Council candidates in the March 8 election are using the popular social networking site to communicate with potential voters, posting notices about upcoming events, photos from the campaign trail and even newspaper coverage of the horse race.

Councilwoman Laura Olhasso was first out of the gate, starting a page for her reelection campaign in late November. With 92 followers as of Monday, she’s now the election’s Facebook frontrunner.

And in this race, Facebook presence may demonstrate more about the candidates than their technical savvy.

While several council challengers have continuously attacked incumbents as long deaf to residents’ concerns, ironically it’s the incumbents — and not those critics — who have embraced social networks.

Mayor Donald Voss has maintained a Facebook election page since late January. Planning Commissioner Mike Davitt, endorsed by all five sitting council members, also has one. So does Charlie Kamar, who generally credits council members with jobs well done.

But former Planning Commissioner James Hill, registered nurse Jacqueline Harris and retired scientist Robert Richter — each staunchly critical of the council’s willingness to listen and respond to constituents — do not maintain Facebook pages for their campaigns.

Harris, 48, said she had built one early in the race but was unable to set different privacy restrictions for her personal page and her public campaign page. Rather than lower her personal privacy settings, Harris closed the public page, focusing instead on two election websites and a doorbell-ringing campaign that’s reached 2,600 homes and counting.

Richter, 80, had no comment.

Hill, 60, doesn’t use Facebook. Instead, he hopes to reach voters by publicizing his home phone number, which he’s even published in the sample ballot.

“They’re scrambling around trying to do something,” Hill said of Olhasso and Voss, the two incumbents in the race for three open seats. “Up until the current election, there’s been no way to contact [council members]. That’s coming back to bite them, and now they’re trying to show they’re in touch. To me it seems like a gimmick. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if someone needs to talk to me I’ll pick up the phone.”

The incumbents say reaching out through Facebook demonstrates a commitment to being reachable and a promise to maintain a similar online presence if elected.

“Things are going well in this city, and if you’re a [non-incumbent] candidate, you need to find some issues. We’re trying every method of communication available, as demonstrated by Facebook,” said Olhasso, 58.

Voss, 60, said the notion that he’s unresponsive to constituents “is an issue invented [by challengers] for the sake of the campaign, just to have something to talk about.”

Olhasso, Voss and Davitt have been boosting their online visibility using Facebook’s inexpensive targeted advertising service, which for a few dollars a day invites thousands of La Cañada Flintridge social network users to click to visit a candidate’s page. Once on a candidate’s page, users who click the “Like” button will see that candidate’s posts appear among their regular stream of updates from Facebook friends in their network.

Davitt, 46, found 80 Facebook fans in just 11 days while spending less than $12 per day on advertising, he said.

He and Olhasso gave credit for their successes with Facebook advertising to the help of local Web designer Kathy Hernandez.

Voss said he turned to his son for help.

Kamar, 58, has found 15 fans since Feb. 2 and said he’ll consider using ads to increase that number.

Facebook and other social network websites first gained national prominence as a political tool during the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Barack Obama followed up an unprecedented online strategy with victory at the polls.

Before claiming the Democratic nomination, Obama had collected more than 250,000 Facebook fans, while Hillary Clinton had managed to gather only a few thousand. By election day, Obama’s Facebook following was nearly four times that of Sen. John McCain’s, according to reports.

On Facebook, “You get feedback that you don’t get from a [traditional] website and in a much timelier manner. It’s a great way to get the message out,” Davitt said.

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