Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.
Recently, I published a column that touched on District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill’s alleged, vulgar emails to radio show host Dave Congalton. The gist of the column was that I found the moral outrage over them to be a moot point when everyone involved had unclean hands. No perfect victims.
This column turned out to be surprisingly divisive. Since then, I’ve received substantial feedback over it. Supporters of Supervisor Hill felt I didn’t give him a fair shake, unnecessarily legitimizing the bombardment of coverage of him by CalCoastNews, and not taking into account that these developments were part of a carefully coordinated political attack. And some people felt like I was overly dismissive of emails that, by every objective standard, would get the sender fired if they weren’t an elected official. The good news is that I didn’t please either side of the divide. Bad news is I’m completely jaded about the politics in this county. Nothing seems to happen.
I touched on this previously, but perhaps didn’t elaborate on my political nihilism as much as I could have.
When it comes to political campaigns, the ideal case scenario is to have candidates with a clear contrast and voters are given a clear choice. Much like what’s happening on the national level, we’re seeing candidates — who run against each other — with an abundance of moral lapses and ambiguity arising from their personal conduct. This leads voters to general unease at the polls, being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils. That’s a truly untenable position for voters to be in. Yes, it’s important for voters to vote based on the issues they care about in their community, but it’s exceedingly hard for voters to overlook the apparent disarray with the candidates.
And voters are constantly placed in the same untenable situation every election cycle. Sure, you’re always going to have candidates resorting to jabbing their opponents on issues, positions and voting records. Now, it’s about allegations and the perception of guilt with accusers performing somersaults to absolve themselves from everything they accuse their political opponents of doing. It’s a vicious and exhausting cycle of projection. And when I look at a ballot and have a choice between two problematic candidates, I start wishing there was a third option: “None of the above.”
I see this problem happening nationally as well, especially with the Democratic primaries. That process started with a crowded fields of candidates, with each of them having their set of pros and cons. But when the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses happened, we learned the participants were largely concerned with electability — who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump in the general election. Ultimately, participants selected Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, as one of the top earner of delegates because they agreed with him on most of the issues. But it remains an open question as to whether Sanders is electable and whether or not he could convince voters in swing states that his policies would work for them.
I see some similarities on the county level. In a recent endorsement editorial (requires a Tribune digital subscription to read), the SLO Tribune editorial board could not, in good conscience, endorse Hill in his re-election bid because of behavior they found troubling. But they conceded that those who want what’s best for SLO County would likely vote for him because there’s “no better option.” Is Hill electable? Because the stakes in the county aren’t as high as they are in a presidential election — voters largely and historically vote Democrat in District 3 —Hill will likely win the race. But would he be electable if his district was more politically diverse? Probably not.
The alternative to Hill is also a problem. In the same editorial I cited from SLO Tribune, the board wrote that challenger Stacy Korsgaden is a smart and personable candidate, but is woefully unprepared for the supervisor position. What Tribune didn’t take into account was her distinct lack of understanding of the local political landscape.
Though Hill’s “Email-gate” controversy wasn’t addressed in their publication for unknown reasons, New Times addressed a postcard the Korsgaden campaign sent to District 3 voters, citing allegations presented by CalCoastNews, which the Shredder referred to as a “Hill-hating online blog” that has “made abusing Hill a kind of cottage industry.” Tribune elaborated on the bias of CalCoastNews’ writer Karen Velie, who sued Hill multiple times. Tribune didn’t mention the fact Velie previously blamed Hill for “orchestrating” her 2013 DUI arrest and the “kidnapping” of her grandchildren by Social Services. And radio show host Dave Congalton, the recipient of Hill’s alleged emails, said he did not give Velie permission to run the story. Velie’s decision to run the story without his permission or necessary context led to a Facebook ad campaign by Korsgaden’s camp, falsely claiming Hill was “caught” sending threatening emails to him (the District Attorney could not find enough evidence to charge Hill, those he was identified as a potential suspect). Backed into a corner, Congalton was forced to repeatedly and emphatically deny that he didn’t coordinate with Velie on the article nor did he share his story about the emails on his Jan. 29 show with the intent to influence the election. In fact, Congalton himself predicted Hill would win the election.
According to four sources that work closely with her campaign, Korsgaden reportedly didn’t know what CalCoastNews is. She reportedly deferred the negative messaging to Axiom Strategies, a Kansas City, MO-based GOP political, public affairs, and public relations firm. Axiom was previously involved in District Attorney Dan Dow’s re-election bid in 2018. At the time, a representative for Axiom confirmed that Kevin P. Rice, an avid supporter of Dow and prominent CalCoastNews contributor, worked closely with the firm in their attacks against then-challenger Judge Mike Cummins. Rice is also a staunch opponent of Hill, having created a website that falsely impersonated Hill’s campaign website in 2012; failed to legally disclose that his “Special Election Newsletter” was paid for by his organization that opposed Hill; falsely advertising Hill would attend a “Lincoln-Douglas style debate” that he personally organized in 2016; and produced anti-Hill robocalls that featured unsubstantiated allegations. According to the same four sources I spoke to, Rice is actively involved in the Korsgaden campaign.
Though Korsgaden previously scoffed at Hill’s charge that she was a “Trumpster,” the political consulting firm is also actively supporting Trump’s re-election efforts.
Yet for all of the mud-slinging and the back-and-forth, nothing of great importance is accomplished. We still have an election between two poisons with voters deciding on the lesser one, recycling the same dirty campaigning playbooks from four years prior. And all we can do collectively shrug, hold our noses and vote for candidates on positions we believe in — paying no mind to everything else. That is how our country elected Donald Trump. We learned nothing.