‘Gentelmen’s agreement’ for the North Bay Assembly race operated in 1986 – Marin Independent Journal
It is appropriate on Independence Day to reflect on the increasingly threatened state of our democracy while simultaneously understanding that the current status quo is not inevitable.
Not so long ago, the New York Times reported: “In a move that would seem unimaginable in the United States, the campaigns of the main (German) political parties concluded this year a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to exploit the information that could be disclosed as a result of a cyber attack.
There was a time, at least in Marin, when political “gentlemen’s agreements” were possible. This leads to a July 4th reminiscence involving a man and a woman.
That was 1986. There was a relentless, well-funded, and high-profile campaign for the Marin-Sonoma State Assembly seat. While hard to imagine today, that was when Marin and North Bay were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The outgoing MP was Dr. Bill Filante, a Greenbrae ophthalmologist and a very moderate Republican. The challenger was a liberal Democrat and mayor of Fairfax, JoHanna Willmann.
Even in an era when politics were less tribal, dirty campaigns were nothing new. Marin’s well-educated voters had been repelled by a series of “exaggerated” local campaigns. Filante and Willmann responded by signing a mutually beneficial pact. Neither would run any mail, radio, TV or newspaper ads that the other campaign legitimately believed to be bogus. The high-profile deal included a method for resolving disputes.
Each campaign appointed a “second” (as in a duel) who reviewed each of his opponent’s campaign announcements. The “second” was allowed to challenge the other’s campaign text if he found it false or grossly misleading. The deal only made sense because, like Filante and Willmann, the candidates respected their opponent’s fundamental integrity.
Willmann was a close friend. I was then a member of the Mill Valley City Council and an active Democrat. She named me her second. Filante chose Dick Boesel as his second. Boesel, a member of the Belvedere city council and chairman of the Republican Party of Marin, and I were social friends and colleagues on the Golden Gate Bridge District board.
Despite our relationship, there might be some intractable disputes. A widely respected neutral was recruited as an adjudicator: Bryon Mauzy, then Marin County superintendent of education.
Boesell and I resolved most of the dozens of cases where we challenged the other candidate’s ad plans. We jointly rewrote the language in a way we both believed to be fundamentally accurate, even though we didn’t agree with the underlying political direction of the ad. Professional political consultants out of county in both campaigns nodded because Filante and Willmann ordered them to do so.
There was only one occasion when Boesel and I disagreed. This resulted in a conference call with Mauzy who dreaded missing out on the neck and neck campaign. The school principal replied, “You guys are friends; work it. It’s better than me who decides. When Mauzy hung up, Boesell and I fixed the problem.
Willmann, the outsider, lost to Filante, who served in the state assembly until his untimely death in 1992. At that time, Marin, along with well-educated and prosperous suburban American counties , were in the process of becoming the democratic stronghold that it is today.
This story shows that today’s bitter divisions and hyper-partisanship are not the only way to practice politics.
Marin or the Nation is unlikely to ever return to the pre-internet era when even die-hard poles who usually disagreed over politics could respect, trust, and even appreciate each other.
Changing the course of our inevitably targeted civic trajectory requires these actions. First, recruit top class candidates, something easier said than done. Second, involve political activists who don’t see the other side as inherently bad. Third, encourage an electorate that has pledged to vote only for people who speak the objectively proven truth, regardless of party.
This is the permanent task of true American patriots on July 4th.