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Social Networking Candidate Comes Up Short in Mountain View

By Priyanka Sharma | 3 Nov 2010

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Staff writers Armine Pilikian and James Douglas Haddon contributed to this story.

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Aaron Jabbari's Facebook campaign page.

It was a bittersweet end to an exciting few months for would-be Mountain View City Council member, Aaron Jabbari, who tried to buck the trend of excessive finance spending by running a cash-free, paperless campaign and use Facebook as a new way to connect with voters.

At 21, Jabbari was the youngest of three challengers trying to unseat three incumbents all of whom relied on a traditional campaign playbook – spending money and putting out placards – to get re-elected.

Jabbari pulled in a scant 6.72 percent of 30,649 votes cast, trailing incumbents Margaret Abe-Koga, Ronit Bryant, and Jac Siegel who carried 26.52 percent, 22.56 percent, and 20.73 percent of the vote respectively. Challengers Dan Waylonis came in fourth with 13.06 percent, while Greg David captured 10.41 percent.

Rather than papering the town’s leafy streets with expensive political posters – or “litter” as he called it – Jabbari made his views known through the social network,  allowing voters to spread the word by simply clicking a “Like” button.

It was an unconventional approach for an unconventional candidate.

A wunderkind of sorts, Jabbari graduated in 2009 with a political science degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Fresh out of college, Google offered him a job in online ad sales.
Jabbari said his modus operandi centered on his belief in the power of digital technology and its capabilities for efficiency and cost savings.

Jabbari gets ready to vote at the Chinese Community Church polling site on Tuesday morning.

Last summer, he launched a Facebook page and updated it regularly with current news items, comments, and his own views on the issues. His approach was more like a viral fireside chat than a stump speech.  Over the course of the four-month campaign, those views evolved as he engaged with Mountain View voters online, he said.

“The reason that I took that approach is that people should not have to have a lot of money to get involved in local politics or politics as a whole,” Jabbari said of his Facebook strategy

With many of the city’s 75,000 residents expressing concerns about the quality of life, Jabarri took a stand on affordable housing and transportation. Mountain View has a highly educated workforce of young technology workers who flock to Google and NASA, among other firms. Over half are renters, according to a recent city resident survey.
Challenging the three incumbents – all of whom are homeowners between the ages of 40 and 66 - wasn’t easy. “I represent a very underrepresented population. There are a large number of young people in Mountain View, but no young people in the City Council,” said Jabbari, who also advocated offloading a money-losing municipal golf course.
Surprisingly, perhaps, given his age – Jabbari stood out from his competitors as a candidate who opposed Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana use. He stood out because he faced potential conflicts of interest due to his job with Google, a major employer in town. And he stood out because he didn’t raise any campaign funds.

Jabbari, the youngest candidate to run for City Council, checks in and gets his ballot.

With a campaign spending capped by a municipal ordinance, no candidate in this race spent to excess. Records show incumbents Margaret Abe-Koga, Mayor Ronit Bryant and Jac Siegel raised $27,620, $9,741 and $11,640 respectively. Challenger Dan Waylonis raised $1,788; Greg David , less than $1,000. Having to raise a lot of money to campaign “creates a barrier to entry for working people and the less economically fortunate,” Jabbari said. “Both these problems can be overcome if you can connect with your constituency on a digital level.”

Jabbari also made the rounds of senior citizen centers, debates, and local ice cream socials and barbeques.
His defeat left some supporters wondering whether the premise behind his campaigning strategy cost him a city council seat. Some asked: How much do candidates really need to spend in order to win? In the future, could a social networking campaign take off?
Margaret Abe-Koga, who had both a website and Facebook page, said she doesn’t think an online only approach is enough. “I still believe the old fashioned door-to-door approach where you get to talk to voters is the best way,” she said.

Jabbari plans to watch the election results with fellow candidates Greg David and Dan Waylonis.

Robert Cox a member of the Old Mountain View Neighborhood Association said he thought most voters relied on local newspaper endorsements in addition to “the campaign literature they have seen, and the number of campaign signs they see on the street.”

Mountain View resident Katherine Greene said Jabbari might have made more headway had he turned to another social network – LinkedIn – rather than Facebook – “because it’s more professional.” Even using Facebook as a complement to an official website might have worked better,” she said.
Jabbari said his campaign amounted to a non-traditional experiment in democracy. He said he and his campaign manager, Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg, modeled a campaign that fit with how he hopes politics will work in the future. “Technology has revolutionized what we can do,” he said. “It’s just matter of has it happened yet?”

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