From ‘rough-and-tumble’ to the ‘gnarliest’ — Encinitas mayoral hopefuls, observers note vitriolic turn


Election Day. (Photo by Element5 Digital, Unsplash)

Stephen Wyer

A growing number of electoral candidates and activists in Encinitas are expressing concern over what’s being described as an unusually vitriolic and hostile political climate heading into next week’s midterm election.

In Encinitas’ mayoral race, city Councilman Tony Kranz is running for mayor — he’s being opposed by Cindy Cremona, Jeff Morris and Michael Blobe. Kranz described the political atmosphere locally as unusually venomous compared with previous election cycles.

“Campaigns are always rough-and-tumble, but this year it’s more directly involving the candidates,” Kranz said. “In the past, political attacks and opposing advertising was more done through independent expenditure groups and such … all these sundry groups that would be funded by people that have a goal of supporting or opposing candidates. Not as much this year.

Campaigns are always rough-and-tumble, but this year it’s more directly involving the candidates.

— Tony Kranz, Encinitas councilman running for mayor

“The candidates running against me right now are brand new on the scene and they’re making a scene looking for name recognition,” he said. “At least one of them has not opposed using some pretty nasty rhetoric and images. It’s surprising that he thinks that that’s going to attract voters, but maybe he’ll prove me wrong. The people responding to from what I can tell are mostly pretty repulsed, so I don’t think it’s working the way he wants it to.”

Kranz subsequently clarified that he was referring to Morris with these remarks. Morris has been a longtime critic of Kranz and the rest of the City Council, and he has repeatedly accused Kranz and Mayor Catherine Blakespear in particular of having corrupt ties to special interest groups, including local nonprofits and housing developers.

In recent Facebook posts, Morris’ campaign has circulated a meme caricaturing Kranz in the likeness of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un and has referred to Kranz as a “crook,” a “cheat,” and “crazy,” while also labeling him as an “order-taker” who will perpetuate Blakespear’s “autocratic” style of leadership if elected.

For Morris’ part, he called this year’s campaign “the gnarliest election that I’ve ever seen,” but he blamed supporters of both Kranz and Cremona for fostering a hostile political climate in the mayoral race.

Morris repeated his claims that both of his opponents are being backed by special interest groups and said that he and his family have been on the receiving end of “ruthless” personal attacks from those same organizations, including the Leichtag Foundation, a local nonprofit that Morris says has defamed him publicly.

“These people make stuff up about me and I’m just defending myself — they’re doing this because I’m calling out the corruption in this city,” Morris said. “I have no regrets for matching and even sometimes exceeding the magnitudes of the attacks that I’ve experienced on the campaign trail.”

… The gnarliest election that I’ve ever seen.

— Jeff Morris, candidate for Encinitas mayor

Cremona agreed with the other candidates that the campaign has been unusually vitriolic, but she blamed the hostile atmosphere on the fierce partisanship that she says is exuded by the current City Council, and from Blakespear in particular, who is now running for state Senate.

“Over the last several years, our city has experienced a lot of division, not only between political parties, but between our city leadership and residents,” she said. “Local races should be nonpartisan, but partisanship in our city government has gone a long way to dividing this community. It’s unfortunate, because the mayor has a responsibility to the entire community, regardless of political affiliation. Our city does not need more divisive politics, fiery rhetoric or unrealistic solutions.”

Former Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar argued that the local elections this year have been plagued by unusual animosity and bitterness, which she described as being fueled by misinformation, confusion, and personal attacks emanating from social media.

“In Encinitas this election cycle, the vitriol and hostility has focused mainly on the mayoral race,” Gaspar said. “Temperatures are running hot throughout the community over several big issues: crime, homelessness, public safety and development. Encinitas is my hometown and there is little doubt that some voices have become increasingly angry during this particular election cycle.

Local races should be nonpartisan, but partisanship in our city government has gone a long way to dividing this community.

— Cindy Cremona, candidate for Encinitas mayor

“The stakes are arguably higher than they have ever been before in Encinitas as public fatigue grows over these challenging issues and the city government’s inability to solve the problems,” she said. “Anyone who has dipped into the comments section on Nextdoor, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages knows how central social media is to fanning the flames of discontent. It is far too easy to say mean things from behind a screen. Lost in the antics of rampant sign-stealing, name-calling and personal attacks this election cycle is open dialogue and a free exchange of ideas that once existed when I ran for City Council in 2010.

“The community suffers the consequences amidst the increased chaos without an opportunity to gain an understanding of the essence of who the mayoral candidates even are and how they propose to face these critical issues. This has led to a great deal of confusion and individuals at a loss for how to vote.”

Longtime resident Darius Degher expressed his view that hostility in politics at the local level is a reflection of a national political climate that is increasingly marked by the weaponization of people’s fear, anger, and even hatred toward political opponents.

Degher pointed to the personal attacks and misinformation spread by former President Donald Trump during the 2016 general election as laying out a blueprint for politicians at all levels to model in belittling opponents, harnessing public anger, and generally undermining trust in democratic institutions.

“Locally, the attacks on Catherine Blakespear are an example (of this). Concerted and well-funded character assassination efforts at every turn. Not to mention the frivolous lawsuits. It’s been the local equivalent of birtherism, or Hillary’s emails,” Degher said.

Degher pointed to Morris’ campaign tactics as an example of how those employed by Trump can be utilized by leaders at the local level.

It is far too easy to say mean things from behind a screen.

— Kristin Gaspar, former Encinitas mayor

“Locally speaking, Jeff Morris has brought Trump’s methods to Encinitas, using social media and the language of fear, violence and hyperbole to enrage. … More insidious, that same fear and anger then gets utilized by other seemingly more moderate candidates, like Cindy Cremona and Julie Thunder (candidate for City Council in District 3). Their positions are similar to those of Morris, but they don’t need to use his extremist rhetoric. He’s already done that for them. So, the overheated rhetoric is sometimes utilized in less obvious ways.”

Cremona wholly denied having run anything but a clean campaign throughout the election cycle.

“I’m proud that we’ve run a clean and professional campaign,” she said. “We’ve taken our campaign to the residents and worked hard to win their respect and votes by discussing issues important to them. We’ve campaigned on my knowledge of these issues and thoughtful, pragmatic solutions. I’d like to bring respect back to City Hall. As mayor, I will always listen to residents. It’s why I chose the motto, ‘Your voice, your choice.’”

Alex Riley, a former candidate for City Council, agreed with Gaspar that social media has amplified voices of discord and toxicity in the mayoral election.

“The more outrageous the statement is made online, the more it’s going to get more clicks and more people are going to want see what it’s all about,” Riley said. “I think that everyone needs to be personally responsible for themselves and not caught up in thinking that this behavior is all right, whether anonymously or not, or if you feel it’s the new normal, it really doesn’t have to be — it’s ultimately up to your own conduct.

“We can choose to keep the conversations from getting personal and try to be articulate and focus on the issues. … The unfortunate reality is that with society and social media in general, everyone has a shorter attention span than ever before, and what we consider ‘shocking,’ well that line just keeps getting moved,” he said.

Riley expressed his view that any effort to tone down the rampant hostility in Encinitas politics has to start with those currently in power setting the example.

“What surprises me the most is that no one has shown the backbone to call out this behavior,” Riley said. “I guess they feel like if it’s not directed at them, they can ignore it. I would like to see our leaders call it out no matter where it comes from. If you can’t stand up and call out bad behavior, what are you going to do on council with a room of angry people? … The problem is this kind of rhetoric has a chilling effect on people participating in politics … Most people just don’t want to put themselves through the personal attacks and intimidation that we’re seeing. The fact that this is happening on the local level is really disappointing.”

Stephen Wyer is a North County freelance writer.

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