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The Friendly Bay Village “Likes” Wandell: Amityville’s First Social Media Election
From January through Election Day, I volunteered for Ed Johnson’s run for Amityville Village Mayor. I set up and managed his Facebook fan page, copy-edited and distributed literature and coordinated materials with the campaign’s managers and Ed himself. The prevailing wisdom amongst our inner circle was that this was a two-man race between Ed and Peter Casserly, with Jim Wandell likely coming in third, following what we thought was a less than stellar performance in February. In fact, one concern of ours was that many voters would see Casserly as a sequel Mayor to Peter Imbert, so the anti-Casserly vote would split between Ed and Wandell.
As it turned out, a solid 44 percent plurality of voters wound up backing Wandell, and an even larger share of the electorate supported one of his two Trustee running mates, Jessica Thole Bernius. Ed came in last in all eight of Amityville’s election districts, garnering only about a fifth of the overall vote and less than half of the votes he received for Trustee four years prior.
In retrospect, Wandell’s victory made a lot of sense: Four years ago, Mayor Imbert was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote. In a three-way race, Wandell could theoretically have just won the 36 percent of the vote that opposed Imbert, with his two opponents splitting the remainder. He wound up winning that, plus 8 percent.
Wandell’s campaign was a well-oiled machine that used tactics never before seen in the Village’s political history. The candidate ran his Facebook fan page directly, interacting with potential voters, and he sent out robocalls, which many people complained were intrusive — but apparently not enough to lead to his defeat come March 19. In addition, Wandell and Casserly both sent out campaign materials in the mail, whereas all of Ed’s materials were hand-delivered by volunteers. (Ironically, we thought their heavy-handed tactics were a sign that they lacked grassroots support.) Casserly even sought local and county-level support from prominent Democratic elected officials, with County Executive Steve Bellone campaigning door-to-door for him on Election Day, another break with Village tradition.
Although Facebook “likes” do not translate directly into votes, the support the three candidates received on their respective pages was telling. Wandell’s Amityville First Party page was established early, and he constantly ran advertisements directed at Facebook users who lived in the Village. Casserly created a page at the last minute but was able to garner a respectable showing. I created our page not long after AFP’s, but we did not budget for Facebook advertising, so gaining viral support was slow-going. On Election Day, we had 114 “likes” to Casserly’s 220. AFP’s support was over 400 strong. Ed was also the only candidate without a Web site, although I suspect the campaigns’ Facebook pages were more influential in informing and updating the electorate than either site was. Indeed, one of Wandell’s first acts after being elected was creating a Mayoral Facebook page, and he has promised to keep the Village Web site updated with more detailed governmental business than in previous years.
The nature of politics is seldom black-and-white, however, and traditional campaigning still played a major role in last month’s campaign. The Amityville First Party’s other Trustee candidate, Pete Himmelman, narrowly lost to Kevin Smith, who ran independently of any Mayoral candidate. Kevin had run for Trustee two years ago and lost, so his name recognition was likely higher than Himmelman’s, and both the PBA and the Amityville Record endorsed him. But Kevin also had virtually no online presence, other than his personal Facebook profile, which he infrequently updates. His win would appear to disprove the assertion that were it not for social media, Wandell would not have prevailed.
In the end, I doubt that Wandell would have lost were it not for Facebook. Many Village residents were simply fed up with the status quo and wanted change, particularly in the wake of the slow recovery effort following Superstorm Sandy. In a way, 2013 was a micro version of the 2008 Presidential election: Although there was no incumbent running, one candidate (or in Amityville’s case, three) ran against the outgoing administration’s policies, to the detriment of the other candidate(s). The people spoke loudly this March, and with the appointment of Trustee Nick Lalota, we will see just how easily that much-promised change can be effected by a Village Board whose most senior member, Dennis Siry, has just two years’ experience. Good luck and Godspeed to Mayor Wandell and his colleagues; they will most certainly need it.