::wipes dust off blog::
So hey! Early voting in Minnesota just started, which means I am overdue for getting started with this year’s election blogging. But before I get started with that, I really feel like I should mention that back in August, like over a month ago now, I won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story for Cat Pictures Please. I have no idea if there are people out there who read my blog here but do not follow me on either Twitter or Facebook, where I gleefully and excitedly jumped up and down right afterward.
Me with my Hugo. Photo taken by John O’Halloran, Ohana TyeDye Photography
The star-and-moon batik jacket and skirt belonged to my mother. It was her favorite dress-up outfit for years and years. When my sister and I cleaned out her closet in July, Abi suggested that I wear it to the Hugo Awards as a way of having her with me. When I got dressed for the Awards Ceremony, I also carefully stashed a couple of Kleenex in the pocket. Every single time Abi or I checked the pockets of anything our mother had ever worn, there were a couple of tissues in the pockets. She wanted to be prepared! (My Grammie has the same habit. She always wants a tissue in her pocket, sleeve, or the little carrier bag of her walker. Or ideally all three.)
The Hugo rocket is currently sitting on the buffet in our dining room. I will eventually find another spot for it, but here’s the thing — as you may have guessed, we are cat owners. In fact, we got a new cat in June.
One of our cats is sufficiently large that he managed to (accidentally) shove a literal stone sculpture off the mantelpiece a few months ago. The Hugo rocket is heavier than you might expect but it’s also a bit top-heavy and I really don’t want it to get broken. Where it is, it could get tipped over but it’s not going to make a six foot fall to the floor.
After winning, I got interviewed on MPR, which was awesome, and I got quoted in a Salon article, which was cool, and Chuck Tingle called me a “True Buckaroo” (and bitter conservative puppy John C. Wright called me a “graying spinster,” which was bonus levels of hilarious because Ed and I celebrated our 20th anniversary in July! Actually, we briefly acknowledged our anniversary, promised ourselves a lovely meal out, and … still have not taken it because our summer was ridiculously busy.)
I always have this weird idea that things will calm down a bit once school starts. This is a patently absurd belief. Not only does school mean my kids’ activities all ramp up again, September is also when BOTH of my daughters have birthdays. Molly turned 16 this year, and Kiera turned 13. Plus I got called for jury duty — I actually initially got called for the week of WorldCon, but I got a deferral until September. That was the week of the 12th through the 16th, and I actually got on a jury. Jury service was extremely interesting but surprisingly exhausting. (You have to sit and listen to people for long periods of time.) Molly does Mock Trial, so I’d actually been in Ramsey County courtrooms before to watch her team competing — it was very odd being in that same setting for real. Also, the prosecutor started out his opening statement in almost the exact same way that the Mock Trial kids do. (He was very young. I totally bet he did Mock Trial back in the day.) All the jurors took things very, very seriously — no one tried to evade jury service by trying to make themselves sound biased, and no one tried to rush through deliberations to get the heck out. I might write more about it later — I’m allowed to say whatever I want now that it’s over — if people are curious.
During voir dire (the part where the judge, then the lawyers, get to ask you questions to try to filter out the people they don’t want), the Defense lawyer asked us each to share some personal detail about ourselves. I’m not sure what her goal was in doing this but it gave us all stuff to chat about in the jury room, which was nice. (You’re not allowed to discuss the case among yourselves until it’s over and you’re deliberating.) Anyway, for my personal detail I told everyone I’d won a Hugo Award in August. One of the other jurors had actually read the story! Which was very cool. (And the judge’s clerk told me afterward that he and the judge were going to look up my story now that the trial was over. I hope they liked it.)
Anyway! I will be be back in a bit to start blogging about the 2016 election. In the meantime, I’ll note again that if you live in Minnesota, you can find your ballot at the Secretary of State’s website — both a list of candidates (that includes links to websites when available) and a literal sample ballot so you can see how it will look. You can send away for an absentee ballot right now, or go in early and vote right now. (They call this “no-excuses voting.”) The two things on my own ballot that I legitimately don’t know right now how I’ll vote on: a school board special election (someone quit their seat) and a proposed constitutional amendment on how we pay state legislators. Honestly, every other race I already know how I’ll vote — but writing about this stuff is fun, so you’ll get my full take, barring any unforseen disasters.
I had a couple of people ask me this year how I do my research. I just want to note again that I’m a hobbyist, not a journalist, so I can’t call people up and say “this is Naomi Kritzer from the local paper of record, calling to ask you questions about your campaign.” (I tend to assume that real journalists get quick responses to their questions, especially when they’re softball questions like “what makes you different from your opponent?” but I may actually be totally wrong about this. I’ll tell you this: “I’m a political blogger” does not open doors. People get this nervous, guarded look, like they think you’re probably a lunatic.)
My core research tool is Google, but there are some specific techniques I use and stuff I look for.
1. Get the slate of candidates.
In Minnesota, you can get the precise slate of candidates for your precinct by visiting the MN Secretary of State’s site and putting in your zip code and address: http://myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us/Default.aspx Once it gets to a month or so before the election you can even view a sample ballot.
The candidate list (though not the sample ballot) usually includes links to most of their websites. This is not perfect: some candidates, including one fairly high-profile one, wrote their URLs down wrong (or they got put in wrong at the elections office.) Nonetheless, the links can save time.
Getting the list is critical for the downballot races because they’re so rarely covered in voter guides.
2. Look at the websites of the candidates.
Interpreting a candidate’s website can be one of those areas where there’s no substitute for a base of local knowledge, because so often there’s subtle code. I mean, not always — sometimes, you have a nice straightforward choice between an obvious conservative and an obvious liberal and you can pick your political philosophy and be done with it. (And in fact, in a U.S. Senate or U.S. House race you should probably just decide whether you like Democrats or Republicans and stick with those candidates, because you’re not just voting for Jane Q. Minnesotan, you’re voting for her party to control that branch of government.) In local elections, though, this may be a whole lot less clear, and there are more likely to be highly contentious issues that don’t break down neatly along party lines.
“Fiscal responsibility” is something of a Republican buzzword and it can mean “I think teachers are overpaid and guidance counselors are a waste of money” but it can also mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.” “No handouts to billionaires” is a Democratic buzzword and it can mean “I think tax breaks for large employers are always a terrible idea, even when we’re offering incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed” but it can ALSO mean “that sports stadium we are now spending a pile of money to build is STUPID and I wouldn’t have supported it.”
One of the words you’ll see a lot in local elections is “transparency.” Sometimes this means, “I am totally convinced that if only we posted all our minutes on a website, people would take a sudden passionate interest in solid waste management.” Or, “We should hire someone to do VIDEO of all those solid waste management committee meetings and put THOSE on a website. Or local access cable! THE PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW. EVERY. DETAIL.” Other times it means, “I can’t actually claim that my opponent is corrupt but everyone knows he is, and I’m promising fewer no-bid contracts, back-room deals, and mutual back-scratching arrangements.” And occasionally it means, “I’m a corrupt jackass and I’m going to do that nifty political trick where I try to suggest my opponent has the exact problems that are my greatest weakness.” Again, some knowledge of the local people involved can help.
It’s always worth looking to see what they think the issues are, because that all by itself can be extremely revealing. When I’m evaluating politicians, especially at the local level, I’m a big fan of people who will commit to specifics. Everyone agrees that the achievement gap is a problem, so promising to erase the achievement gap is pretty meaningless if you’re not saying “…by doing x, y, and z.” (Of course, if people are promising totally ridiculous specifics, it’s totally fine to hold that against them.)
Endorsements pages are also often very interesting. First off, as a general rule, if someone has no endorsements, that’s a good indicator that they’re a flake. (I mean, get all your friends to endorse you. At least make it look like your trying!) Second, they may be endorsed by politicians you know you hate, even if they’re technically members of your party. (For the record, I loathed Norm Coleman back when he was a Democrat, too.) Or by people you know are nuts. You also get situations where the candidate is saying nothing particularly socially conservative anywhere on their website but has endorsements from socially conservative groups; that’s a pretty good indicator that they hold very socially conservative views, even if they’re keeping quiet about them this week.
If I’m having a really hard time sussing out what someone is like, I will sometimes go through the list of names on their endorsements page, Google the individuals, and try to figure out whether they run liberal or conservative. I mean, there’s limits, with private individuals, but often you’ll find out that they’re board members of some non-profit, or they work as lobbyists, or they’re high-level executives in some industry… this, however, can be a whole lot of work.
3. Google the candidates.
If a candidate has a very common name, or if they share a name with a celebrity, I’ll try adding the state, the city, the county, the job they’re running for, their political party if I know it, each political party in turn if I don’t, and various relevant issues.
Sometimes, I will look specifically for news stories. You can adjust the dates on Google News if you click “Search Tools” on your results page, and look for stuff that’s less recent. There are certain local sources I’ll always click on. One of my favorites is the City Pages, because their searchable archive goes way back and they’ve always liked covering scandals. Obviously I’ll click if I spot a Star Tribune link. I also like mnpost.com and tcdailyplanet.net. If I hit a really old article that looks promising but appears to only be in a paid archive (Highbeam, for instance), I make a note of where it appeared and visit my local library’s website; they have paid access to a bunch of news databases. Usually, the stuff I’m after doesn’t require archaeological skills, but every now and then I really have to dig. (It helps a lot if I have some idea of what I’m digging for.)
I look for candidates’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; sometimes I can get more information on them that way (sometimes they’re just very, very boring — serious campaigns for high-level offices always have Twitter feeds but they tend to be shockingly dull.)
If I’m really digging (especially in minor races where I haven’t been able to find much) I will look people up on LinkedIn. That can be a good way to see if this minor candidate has some qualification for the office they’re running for. Also, sometimes there’s stuff that will tip you off about their views and/or agenda.
Blogs are great. I’m always really excited when I find a blog, especially if it’s from a few years ago, before this person was thinking about running for public office, and they might actually say what they think instead of couching everything in politically palatable euphemisms.
Minneapolis has a long-standing mailing list called the Issues List which is archived online. Sometimes I can find a fantastic gossipy discussion full of invective that relates to a particular candidate. It’s fun when it’s people talking about them; it’s even MORE fun when they were a participant.
Interviews with candidates are basic but sometimes very solid. Interviews from a partisan source are more likely to be interesting. (Bonus points when the candidate forgets that Democrats AND Republicans will be able to read this interview.) Voter’s Guides, of course, if they filled them out. If they refused to fill out a Voter’s Guide that can also be revealing. (Sometimes what it reveals is, “this is not a serious candidate.”)
4. Watch video / listen to radio.
This is not my favorite research method but I will do it occasionally. It can be particularly interesting if you can dig it up from primary season. Something I realized this time is that you can make a YouTube video skip five seconds forward or backward by using your arrow keys. (You have to start it, pause it, and restart it in order to activate that feature. It’s possible it doesn’t work on all videos.) This is especially good to know if you’re trying to watch a primary-season debate during the main season because who cares what Kurt Zellers said?
Sometimes, candidates will put all their substantive ideas on videos so you have to sit through them yammering to find out what they think about anything. I hate that approach so profoundly that all by itself it’s going to be a huge strike against any candidate who does it. I have a lot of races to research and a lot of candidates to sift through, and I can read a lot faster than I can listen.
5. Ask questions.
Sometimes I want to know something about a candidate’s stance that’s not on their website, and I will e-mail them to ask for more information. I’ve had a wide range of responses to this, from prompt helpful e-mails back to “can you please call me so we can chat? here’s my number” to complete radio silence.
I get mixed results with this. Jeff Johnson (GOP candidate in the governor’s race) ignored me. Hannah Nicollet (Independence candidate in the governor’s race) asked me to call her, which I did, and we talked on the phone for a bit. Nelson Inz asked me to call him, which I ended up not doing. Jay Larson e-mailed back to ask me for a more specific question, but then did not follow up with a response to my more specific question. (I’d asked him how he differed from his opponent; he wanted to know a more specific concern so I asked him about the District 5 high school options. No reply.)
Asking me to call is fine. E-mailing back is fine. Having a campaign worker e-mail back is also fine. For someone in a local race to never respond at all is not fine and communicates a tremendous amount of arrogance, IMO. If I really want an answer I may try Twitter and the campaign Facebook page as well. (I tried that with Mark Andrews during last year’s mayoral race and he did not answer me ANYWHERE. I sort of wondered if he was avoiding me because he thought I was nobody, or if he was avoiding me because he knew who I was and did not expect a favorable writeup?)
When a candidate persistently ignores me I always wonder if they ignore reporters, too. I don’t usually lead with “I’m a blogger” — I just tell them I’m researching candidates for the upcoming election and I have a question about X, here’s my e-mail address, thank you. But, if they Google me, they’ll find my blog. And I know some of the local politicians know who I am! (I am “Minnesota sci-fi writer and astute local political commentator,” thank you, Gawker. I think I’m going to put that on my business cards.) But fundamentally, when I write to a candidate, I’m writing as a voter. And I think I deserve as much of a response as any other voter. I don’t expect a personal reply when I write to Obama or Franken or Dayton (or McFadden or Johnson, before yesterday). But I do expect a personal reply when I write to my State Legislator or my City Council Rep — not necessarily from them, but from their staff or a volunteer.
When I wrote to my City Council rep in St. Paul to grouse about the horrifying road work being done on Ford Parkway this fall and the fact that it was happening at the same time as Montreal Ave was closed, I got a fairly lengthy and apologetic e-mail back from their aide explaining why the scheduling happened the way it did. (It involved a fight for funding in one case, and a lawsuit regarding who they hired in the other, and then a desperate attempt to get everything done ASAP before winter. Annoying as hell, but it would be worse NOT to do the work, so…) When I wrote about the horrific mess that was Hamline Ave last spring, I got a similarly apologetic e-mail along with a promise that they were going to re-pave Hamline before winter. Which they did, hurray!
On a super fundamental level, that’s what accountability looks like to me: a willingness to answer my questions, to respond to me when I have a complaint. I don’t expect that to be instant; my elected officials have lives, kids, other jobs, other constituents. I don’t always expect to get what I want; all resources are limited, and (hopefully) my elected officials have a broader perspective than I do on what those short-term hassles will get us in the long run.
Anyway, if someone won’t answer my questions before they get the job, they’re certainly not likely to answer my questions after they get the job.
If you’re going to do this sort of work researching your local political races, your friends will appreciate it if you share, especially if they hold similar political views. I don’t know how big my readership is at this point, just that it’s way beyond my circle of personal friends because they found it useful enough to pass along.
Before I post stuff online, I try to organize my information: I want to have links to my sources. If someone dislikes my opinion, they can follow those links and form their own. My writeups tend to have a lot of snark, because that’s part of what makes this fun for me. I do, however, try to avoid committing libel. If something’s been alleged, I try to remember to say it’s an allegation. If I’m expressing an opinion, I try to make sure it’s expressed as an opinion.
I usually break do a separate post for each race, but if I have a lot to say about the candidates in some race I might break that one down by candidate because novella-length blog posts are annoying both to write and to read.
Shortly before the election I collect all my endorsements onto one page.
Local elections matter a lot. I was talking about this today with a friend on Facebook. It’s weird to me that people focus so heavily on the national elections, to the exclusion of the local races, given how much of your day-to-day quality of life is the result of stuff your state legislature and city council are doing (or not doing). You are not under any obligation to be exhaustively thorough: you can just sit down with your sample ballot and check out a few websites and ignore anyone who isn’t easy to find.
Hi! I am Naomi Kritzer, SF and fantasy writer and election-season political blogger. I lived in Minneapolis from 1995 to 2012, and now live in St. Paul. Before that, I attended college in Northfield. I grew up mostly in Madison, Wisconsin.
This blogging thing evolved gradually, mostly on LiveJournal. I was doing research on the bottom-of-the-ballot candidates like the people running for Soil & Water, and I was taking notes anyway, and I figured that probably some of my LJ friends would appreciate the information, so I put it in a blog post. I have continued to do this partly because some people find it useful and partly because I find it entertaining. I frame it as endorsements because, well, that’s what you call it when you’re telling people who to vote for, right?
I have no special qualifications and I make no pretense of being unbiased here. I’m a Democrat. I am guessing that there are Republicans who read my blog to find out who NOT to vote for in those down-ballot races, and that’s totally fine. (I am happy that you are finding them useful! albeit in the opposite way from what I might have intended.) My primary research tool is Google.
If you don’t find my political blogging to be either useful or entertaining, then by all means do not read it. If you feel that I am describing candidates in completely unfair or woefully incomplete ways then for goodness’ sake start a blog and write about candidates in a way that fully reflects their complexity and your own viewpoint. If you send me a link, I may even link to you. (Or you can leave a link in a comment, though I’m still figuring out the WordPress comment moderation functions and it’s possible I will accidentally delete it because WordPress marked it as spam and I clicked the wrong thing — anyway, I hesitate to make promises here because I might break them out of sheer technical ineptitude. But my INTENTION would be to leave the links in place.)
If you want to get in touch with me for whatever reason, my e-mail address is exactly what you would expect based on my name and my fondness for using Google.
Every year now, I get asked whether I would be willing to do this for other areas. If someone were willing to pay me in actual money, I would probably do it, but here’s the basic problem: within my own stomping grounds, I have a pretty solid knowledge base. If someone in Minnesota is talking about LGA, NRP, or LRT, I don’t have to look those acronyms up to find out what they mean. (Local Government Aid, Neighborhood Revitalization Project, Light Rail Transit.) I know what issues everyone agrees on vs. what is highly controversial and I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve seen those change over time. I know the history of certain politicians, so that when someone mentions they have an endorsement from Jackie Cherryhomes or Tim Penny, that sends some very specific signals about who they are. I know which suburbs are fancy and expensive and which are not, I know where the various immigrant groups live, and I know the political reputations of the various Minneapolis neighborhoods. I will not claim to recognize every dog-whistle term but I will for sure catch some of them.
The minute I step outside even my specific part of Minnesota that knowledge base is gone. So if, say, I were to research a school board race in Pennsylvania, first I’d have to find out how they even do school funding in Pennsylvania. (Minnesota has a somewhat unusual system. It’s excellent, actually, you should all switch to it.) If it was all property-tax based I’d need to know if this was a town that was, in general, pretty open-handed or not. When I scanned the list of endorsements, I would have no idea whether I was seeing the names of the people who killed last year’s property tax increase or the people who campaigned for it. So it would be vastly more time consuming and there’s a really good chance I would miss something, though certainly I could still make fun of people. (There’s no way THAT could go wrong…) At the request of a friend I looked up a suburban race last year and even though I was reading about a race in either Richfield or Bloomington, which are just barely south of South Minneapolis, I felt shockingly out of my depth.
If you have any questions about me or my background, please feel free to ask them in the comments.
This is an Award Awareness Post, where I’m going to tell you, “Here’s what I published last year! In case you want to nominate it for shiny prizes!”) I will note in my defense that when nominating stories, I appreciate being able to find out easily whether things I liked were Short Stories or Novelettes and precisely where they got published in which month (since you always have to write that stuff down). So. In case you think I’m awesome, are nominating for one of the genre awards (or non-genre! heck, feel free to nominate my penis story for the arty-est most thoroughly literary award out there, if you’re on the nominating committee) and want to know what all I published last year so you can nominate for me for ALL THE THINGS… here you go!
“Solidarity,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2013. This is a seastead story, with the same setting and characters as “Liberty’s Daughter” and “High Stakes” (which were published in F&SF in May/June 2012 and Nov/Dec 2012.)
“The Wall,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2013. This is my time-travel-Berlin-Wall story, in which a college student in 1989 is approached by a woman claiming to be her, from the future, and trying to persuade her to go to Berlin to see the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Bits, Clarkesworld, October. This is the penis story. It’s online and it’s free, so you could go read it right now if you haven’t already. I realized the other week that if you look me up on the Internet, it’s currently the third hit. So this means that the lady I was chatting with at the parent coffee at school, who found out I was an author and wrote down my name: if she googled me, she’s probably now read it.
Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
Bits, Clarkesworld, October. There’s an audio version! Read by Kate Baker.
Otherwise, perhaps I can interest you in a lovely picture of one of my cats:
For years, I’ve enjoyed reading Yuletide stories. Yuletide, for those who are not aware of it, is an annual fanfic exchange. When you sign up, you request a story (you actually have to give multiple possible options) and you also offer to write one (ditto). You volunteer and request based on “fandoms,” which in the context of Yuletide can sometimes be as narrow as a single blog post or a TV commercial. Yuletide does require that the fandoms be small, or at least smallish — you can’t request or offer Harry Potter-based stories, Avengers, anything that has a huge amount of fanfic already.
Stories have to be turned in by late Christmas Eve, and everyone gets their story on Christmas Day. Authors remain secret until January 1st. All the stories are in an archive and can be sorted by fandom, so you can poke through and read all the stuff that appeals to you. (A Little Princess? Allstate’s “Mayhem” commercials? Georgette Heyer’s Venetia? They’re all in there.)
This year I decided I wanted to play. I was assigned to write for someone who wanted Code Name Verity fanfic, and wrote a story called Damask Roses (it’s also Rose Under Fire fanfic) and I wrote a Treat (an unassigned story I wrote because I looked at a bunch of prompts and felt inspired) about Disney Princesses at a college called Four Things That Weren’t Adequately Covered in Mulan’s RA Training.
The story I received was Addams Family (the movie) fanfic called College First. It’s perfect — filled with spot-on bits of deadpan dialog.
I’ve written derivative work before — in fact, I’ve sold it, as you can totally do if you’re deriving from something in the public domain. “In the Witch’s Garden” (published in Realms of Fantasy in October 2002, available now in Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories) is loosely based on “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen. “The Golem” (published in Realms of Fantasy in October 2000, available now in Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories) draws on the Jewish legend of the golem created by Rabbi Loew.
I’ve also written straight-up fanfic, but not on AO3 and not in Yuletide, so that was really a new experience.
“Four Things” … was really popular. And here’s the thing about fanfic — no one’s writing it for money, obviously, so there’s this whole culture surrounding it where people are rewarded for their writing and encouraged to write more with compliments. You do get compliments with pro writing; I’ve gotten some really lovely e-mails over the year, and my most recent published story, Bits, has a comments section with eight comments. By contrast, “Four Things” has 353 kudos (basically like a Facebook “like,” only more specifically adulatory) and 40-some comments, all of them saying things like, “you are SO AWESOME.”
You just do not ever get that sort of feedback in pro writing normally. Unless you are so famous that you are also getting stalkers. It’s a funny thing.
And the weird flip side of this is that with pro writing I also always feel slightly embarrassed and awkward about compliments. (I avoid reviews, even good ones; they tend to paralyze me. The bad ones make me think, “oh my god, she’s totally right: I DO suck.” The good ones make me think, “oh my god, I’m totally going to let this person down.” This is totally neurotic, and yet I know a lot of other writers with this same problem — it’s not just me.) Whereas with the fanfic I read every comment and let everyone’s opinion of my brilliance buoy me up. It felt good.
Anyway. Yuletide was fun. Whether I do it next year will once again depend on whether I remember to sign up, though.
For some reason, over on Facebook I feel like I can share any old thought that pops into my head. In the last 24 hours, I’ve linked to a nifty animated gif of a Russian girl who’s a martial arts champion kicking an annoying guy in the nuts; I’ve compared road work to kitchen remodeling and complained that my city is not as expeditious about it as they really ought to be; and I’ve whined about insomnia. None of those things seem sufficiently weighty for an actual BLOG POST.
I also blogged about local politics over on LiveJournal (and linked from my Facebook). I haven’t decided whether I’m going to continue doing my political blogging over on LJ or move it here, after this election. The thing is, local politics is a fandom that’s of interest to a very narrow range of people. Maybe I should just keep that writing separate? I could keep it on LJ, or set up a whole separate WordPress site for my amateur punditry. The problem with that is that I think I may be too lazy to deal with multiple blogs.
Anyway, I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, this site is coming together a little more; the page for my published novels looks great. I need to finish working on the page for my short stories. Anything else people would like to see on here?
(Creative Commons photo of kitchen construction from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dasqfamily/)