Employing heuristics to marginalize local candidates

Michael Gold, Editor
Historic City News

News writers, I refuse to call them “journalists”, are constantly writing, editing, then re-writing their articles to achieve nirvana in efficiency; as if every character of every word in their 6-inch column had an impact on the lives of every man, woman, and child on earth.

As I’ve read recent accounts of the various candidates for local office, I’ve become more aware of the appearance of “trigger words” and cognitive heuristics to justify a predetermined end.

Since the average news reader is willing to spend less time getting to the meat of the subject, those of us who bring the information you need to reach a decision more quickly have resorted to making little boxes into which you can fit your future government representatives — but we control which boxes will be used and how they will be labeled.

“Oh, he’s a liberal” is an example of the use of a trigger word (“liberal”) to make a box and label it.  And, whoever “he” is, just made a hard landing right in the middle of it.  Now, every time you hear “his” name, you skip right past any critical analysis of the candidate, their voting record, their value system, and instead go directly to “he’s a liberal”.  Heuristics are like greased lightning.  They allow us to take shortcuts in evaluating sometimes complicated sets of facts; presumably to lead us to the same conclusion as if we had methodically gone through all the many details that could have been individually considered.

Anybody see the danger of this?  It’s like grabbing a crutch, maybe a calculator, because you never learned how to do long division.

One such heuristic was used by Sheldon Gardner in today’s St Augustine Record as she compared the candidates for one local race.  She correctly wrote that, regardless of who wins, the race will bring a new face to Seat Four on the St Augustine City Commission.  Vice Mayor Todd Neville did not attempt to qualify for a second term over frustration with city management.

Having said that, she went on to reduce the three candidates who would like to replace Neville to a “local contractor” John Valdes, “confederate monument supporter” Jill Pacetti, and a “vagrant watch group member” Wade Ross.  Nice job, Shelly!

Don’t call Valdes a “developer”, even though he is in the process of developing the English Landing Marina on a narrow strip of land along South Ponce de Leon Boulevard.  After all, “developer” could have a negative connotation to the voters.

But, is there a reason that The Record would want to, immediately and with the greatest economy of words possible, put Pacetti and Ross into “boxes” that have a moat of controversy surrounding them?

And why would those heuristic labels be important if the two topics for questions are mobility (including tourism and related congestion) and vagrancy (including homelessness, even though they are unrelated social ills)?

We may find a clue in Gardner’s summation, “Like Pacetti, Ross’s name became more recognizable because of a single topic: vagrancy.”  That may be the way Gardner became aware of Ross or Pacetti, but I’ve lived here for sixty-years and it is not the way I became aware of them.

I will agree that it is easy to reduce people to a “single topic”, although I would strongly disagree that, except for expedience, complex people are sufficiently described by a singular label.  Most people are not “one-trick ponies”.

In terms of city government experience, “Valdes brings more than almost any other candidate for City Commission this year,” Gardner writes.  She goes on to attribute 20-years’ volunteer service to Valdes on the Historic Architectural Review Board, former chairman of the city’s Code Enforcement Board, and former chairman of the city’s Planning and Zoning Board.

I know that he didn’t, but Valdes might just as well have asked to run the candidate profile article as a candidate endorsement.  It sure reads like one, and maybe that was the reason for the slight.  Most city voters are not acquainted with Ross.  He’s only lived here a couple of years.  Pacetti, on the other hand, grew up here and naturally has a larger circle of influence.

Finally, the profile article dealt with an issue that only affected Jill Pacetti and John Valdes, and the only “side” of the story they published was Valdes’.  Pacetti was made to look like the “bad guy” and did not receive one sentence in which to make a rebuttal.

Pacetti’s campaign recently sent a mailer that said Valdes “destroyed” a nearly 100-year-old home on Washington Street.  That’s a serious accusation but offers no context, making it even more inflammatory.

Gardner allowed Valdes to comment on the campaign mailer and take a shot at Pacetti for sending it without offering Pacetti a chance to respond to the accusation.  “During my 30-years here, I have restored or done significant work on over 130 historic buildings in the City of St Augustine, and continue to do so,” Valdes was quoted in the article.  “For Jill to try to paint me as being a person who is an enemy of preservation and history is laughable.”

The truth is that Valdes had properly asked for an emergency demolition permit for a building that had destabilizing termite and other damage.  City staff denied the request, according to meeting minutes from the city’s code enforcement board.  Valdes told the city that the building was dangerous, and he couldn’t let it remain in a residential neighborhood in the middle of hurricane season.  So, for public safety, he demolished the building.  As foretold, Hurricane Matthew came shortly thereafter.  Valdes paid a $224 fine, to cover administrative costs.

In the interest of equal time, we reached out to Jill Pacetti and asked for her comment on the campaign mail piece.  This was her reply:

“My reason for the mailer was not to suggest that Valdes is not interested in preserving history,” Pacetti told Historic City News today.  “My reason for the mailer was to put the following question in the minds of undecided voters …. How will John Valdes represent the commission if elected?  Will he demonstrate his “experience” to make decisions on his own without permission?”

Trigger words.  Heuristics.  One side of the story.
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