You wanna win? Be present
Most people know nothing about local politicians and just about everyone else knows one or two things about them. So if the one thing a politician is known for is charm, he or she is probably winning on Election Day.
I haven’t seen any research that tells me this but it’s a theory that makes sense to me. To find out what I’m talking about, chat up San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria. He packs a lot of charm into a 60-second conversation. Gloria, and successful politicians like him, have a genuine interest in people.
JFK had the charm gene. So did Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
You don’t have to be born with it, although some people are. Politicians can learn to be charming. That’s the good news. The bad news? Many overlook this simple but important quality even though it carries a lot of weight with voters. It gets lost in many of today’s modern campaigns, which are laser focused on polling, messaging, mail pieces, debates, etc.
Former San Diego City Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio has a great political and policy mind, but it’s safe to say he’s never been described as charming. That said, I saw him become more present during the mayor’s race, and my interactions with him since then have been easier and warmer.
Bob Filner, who isn’t known for showing his best side in public, can be very charming 1-on-1. He tends to tell the same jokes, but he takes time to listen and he comes across as caring.
Like many San Diegans, my wife pays little attention to local politics so I love her take on issues and politicians. She was the first to point out to me a habit that most politicians need to break. During 1-on-1s, too many of them look over your shoulder to see if there’s somebody else in the room they should be talking to. If you do that, you’ve lost my wife’s vote.
The two of us bumped into Mayor Filner a few weeks before the election, and within a minute he had each of us smiling and laughing.
I’ve talked to Gloria numerous times in many different settings and I’ve never been the most important person in the room, but he makes me feel like I am.
With his august approach, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith comes across as more of a serious soul than someone long on charm, but when he talks to you he’s present. He’s interested in what you have to say, even if he doesn’t agree.
I had heard about the charm gene long before I saw it for the first time. Back then, I was a reporter covering a funeral for a longtime mentor of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. The governor had me at hello.
She shook my hand, looked me in the eye and she listened. I don’t remember what we discussed but I’ll never forget how she treated me. I’ve liked her ever since.
The other day I met Dwayne Crenshaw for the first time. He’s one of two candidates vying for the open City Council District 4 seat. I met him by chance at a Starbucks in Hillcrest. He looked sharp. He shared a story that he knew would amuse me and he posed for a photo. I know very little about Dwayne but I like him, and I base that mostly on our lone interaction.
If Crenshaw wins, he would follow the genuine and likable Tony Young, who vacated the council seat to take over the local branch of the American Red Cross. My conversations with Young usually start with him saying: “T! How you doing? How’s your little girl?”
A lot more goes into winning an election than affability, but if candidates are missing that they’re missing out.