Escondido, CA
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How a small group of activists beat a developer who outspent them 50 to 1

No on B social media manager Ashly Mellor and James Gordon, one of the two co-chairmen of the No on Measure B campaign.

No on B social media manager Ashly Mellor and James Gordon, one of the two co-chairmen of the No on Measure B campaign.

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” — Damon Runyon

They call them David vs. Goliath contests for the brutally succinct reason that David usually loses. In political contests where one side spends fifty times the amount that the other one does on advertising and marketing and getting its message out to the voters, usually the big battalions carry the day.

Not in the case of Measure B, where an out-gunned and out-spent No on Measure B campaign not only emerged victorious, they brought along two-thirds of the voters with them and defeated the effort to amend the County General Plan to make a place for Lilac Hills Ranch, a 1,746-unit development. And now, a month later, it must be a bitter thing to been part of the Yes on B campaign, and to wonder how they actually lost, when they spent all that money.

The No on Measure B campaign spent under $100,000, compared to $5 million by the Accretive Group, which funded the lion’s share of the Yes on B campaign.

This wasn’t just a contest of David versus Goliath proportions, it pitted a Chihuahua against a T-Rex — and the dinosaur was left heaving in the dust. Perhaps dinosaur is an apt comparison, since what emerged locally was a thoroughly modern way of waging politics. Goliath erred by taking a ton of money to an IT fight.

It probably didn’t hurt that the electoral battle occurred in San Diego County, which turns out to have been one of the most politically tuned in counties in the state. According to Registrar of Voters Michael Vu, (who commented earlier this week): “As for the County overall, it looks like we will have an 81.5% turnout! I believe that to be the highest in the SoCal region. Congrats to our engaged and civic minded voters!”

So what ultimately defeated the Accretive Group? Social media. The deft manipulation of social media by ONE person, a young housewife named Ashly Mellor, who was the webmaster for the campaign’s efforts amid raising a family. They needed a dream team. But their dream team was just one person. This time one person was enough.

James Gordon, one of the two chairmen of the No on B campaign, commented, “Ashly’s efforts were critical to the success of the NO on Lilac Hills Ranch Measure B campaign. Her ability to execute flawlessly our campaign strategy under constant time and financial constraints was truly amazing. Ashly is a talented and focused professional who enabled the NO on B campaign team and County wide volunteers to achieve an amazing result. More than 735,000 voters voted NO on Measure B. That is a very, very strong message to the Board of Supervisors.”

“Our website and social media sites was a starting point,” Mellor told The Roadrunner. “A means to get the San Diego community educated and motivated. It was amazing how they came together like a small community. It was really neat to watch.”

The efforts of the campaign started with educating the public about what Lilac Hills Ranch was and what it was trying to do.

“We started before Measure B was even Measure B,” said Mellor. “We were sharing articles that appear in The Roadrunner and in the Union Tribune and the San Diego Voice. Any article that had been done leading up to Accretive taking the citizens’ initiative route.”

The opponents of Lilac Hills Ranch — a proposed development has been active for the better part of a decade — started their website slightly more than a year ago, when the Accretive Group was just gearing up to go before the Board of Supervisors, after having gained a slim endorsement by the Planning Commission.

They called their website: Save our SD Countryside. That was before Mellor’s time. The website was started by Lael Montgomery, assisted by Steve Hutchison and Hans Britsch.

“With that website they had done the hard work of telling the history over the last ten years of what had been happening with Lilac Hills Ranch,” she said.

They started their Facebook page on May 28, 2016, while Accretive was still working on the initiative that would eventually become Measure B. “We knew they had enough signatures to qualify for the ballot,” she recalls. “They approached me to get this started. Two weeks later they sent in their signatures.”

Mellor was no professional “hired gun.” “I have done social media, marketing and web designs for schools and small businesses but nothing on this scale. I knew Lael. I was on the Design Review Board and wanted to be on the planning group. It was needed to find someone who knew social media and planning, and this project specifically.”

To educate herself so that she could educate potential voters, Mellor did a lot of research on her own. “They approached me and said, ‘Why do you hate Lilac Hills Ranch? Now, explain to other people why you don’t like it.’ ”

Her next task was to take that question to other people and ask why they disliked the project. And then to research those dislikes to see if they were based on valid premises.

“We wanted things that were based on facts. The reason we won this was that we always told the truth,” she recalls.

“People were very well educated about it. People saw the articles in the San Diego Union Tribune, San Diego Free Press, San Diego Voice, East County Magazine. It started taking off on all sources of news. The biggest thing that we had the facts, going back to the impact report that the Board of Supervisors requested, which was huge,” she said.

Since one of the main selling points of the Yes on Measure B campaign was that the county vitally needs affordable housing, the Anti-B campaign hit strongly on the idea that the development did not provide affordable housing and that the taxpayers might end up subsidizing it.

Her task was close to overwhelming sometimes. “Because it was just me. Honestly, I like working that way and I would work as many hours as could be. It was one of the most interesting things to watch. You started with the voters who knew they were against it, and didn’t know exactly why because they didn’t have the facts. In the end there were few arguments I had to provide, because our supporters were well supported by the facts. To watch the community and the supporters grow, it was an experience.”

The campaign became a battle of social media. The No on Measure B campaign took the position early on that they would allow anyone, pro or con, to post on their website and Facebook page, while the Yes on B campaign generally removed critical comments shortly after they were posted.

During the last week of the campaign three Accretive employees, including the CEO, Randy Goodson, came onto the No on B Facebook and website to argue with their opponents.

“I let these arguments take place. I engaged with Randy,” said Mellor. “He was adamant that there was affordable housing in the development. We said, ‘Where is it?’ He admitted there was no single-family homes that fit that definition, but condos for $350,000.”

The federal definition for affordable housing is that it shouldn’t cost more than 30% of an average family’s income to be able to buy it. “Two hundred thousand dollars is what most people think when they think affordable,” said Mellor.

For Mellor, the turning point in the campaign occurred when, during one of those online “debates” one of the main supporters stated, “They are not affordable, they are attainable.”

“That showed us that they would change their stories. That’s where things started to unravel.” The Yes on B campaign, which first characterized its opposition as a “small group of NIMBYs” eventually accused it of being funded “by a large developer,” whom they declined to identify.

“There was a new lie of the week — every week,” recalls Mellor. “Then they started putting up names of endorsements, like the Escondido Chamber and the La Mesa mayor, which weren’t endorsements.”

One can still go onto the No on Measure B Facebook page and read the arguments. They haven’t been removed yet.

About ten days before the election the No Facebook page was shut down for a short time by a coordinated attack from offshore from fake accounts. In other words, someone paid someone to hit the Facebook page with hundreds of statements, that boiled down into about four statements such as “I’m voting yes on B because you guys are liars” and “Stop the NIMBYism.”

Similar to a “denial of service” attack on a website, the attack was designed to shut down service for a time.

“We were expecting something like this,” she recalls. “We knew something was coming.”

They never did find out who paid for the attack. The Yes on Measure B campaign denied having done so, and complained about similar attacks on their website and Facebook page.

“It honestly didn’t hurt us,” said Mellor.

Another factor that assisted the campaign was getting entertainment figures, including folk singer Joel Rafael, Rita Coolidge and Jason Maraz on their side. They used their own social media to show their support for No on B and listing their own reasons.

“It was very important for people to come up with their own reasons. That why education is the most important thing, so that was important, because they had their own reasons. So that someone is not just parroting a slogan. We were very lucky that San Diego was responsible. With how controversial the election was, people cared. They cared about the ridiculous amount of initiatives they had to vote on,” says Mellor.

“This entire election was very interesting to me,” she said. “People want a change and they want corruption to stop. Doing a developer led initiative is definitely corrupt. San Diego has awakened to that kind of effort. It would be nice to see it stopped at a state level. To make them illegal. Citizens initiatives were put in place for citizens to have a voice. Having developers to be able to use them is not what the process is there for. I hate to see more regulations, but citizens backed by developer money shouldn’t be able to go the route.”

The NO campaign couldn’t have won with social media alone, but it was a method for calling out the troops.

“We educated people,” said Mellor. “We motivated people to go out and vote. Social media was just the voice. We had groups do bridge walks. We got people to do rallies. ECOC got involved. It involved a bunch of different groups and got them out in the community doing something.”

The same core group of volunteers was involved in most of these efforts. Many involved their children. “That’s the power of social media,” she said. “It doesn’t actually put bodies there literally, but you are able to reach a bunch of people in an amount of time you were never able to do before. The first Board of Supervisors meeting that I first attended, in less than 72 hours we had over 1,500 letters sent in asking for the board to require an analysis from staff on the project before putting it on the ballot. Without social media that would never have happened.”

Celebrity involvement was also important. “An important part of using social media is sharing.

If it wasn’t for celebrity endorsement, for people fully supporting a sharing on their pages, we would not have had the impact we had. It was like a virus. We did have some paid ads. We reached 1.3 million with our paid ads, and people sharing them. We hit 1.3 million people at least eight times during the campaign.”

“We had people who were so moved that they paid for their own signs to put around. That’s the only way that people can compete.”

Mellor concluded, “Social media is a tool, and it’s a very good tool, but without people like Mike O’Connor and Jack Fox and Patti LaChapelle going out and getting in contact with volunteers we wouldn’t have won. Our social media who would get people to sign up, but these were the people who got people to events.”

Social media and other technologies combine to form such a swirling, changing landscape, that it may be impossible for anyone to ever completely reproduce what the No on Measure B campaign did in November 2016. But for the moment, their roadmap is there for anyone to see.

We must wait until the next election to find out who is next David and the next Goliath.

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