Candidates and campaign chiefs talk about travel, technology, and identifying delegates.
The Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and the Rev. Peter Morales spent a combined $325,000 and traveled to more than two dozen joint appearances in their race to become the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. They and the chairs of their campaigns spoke with UU World about the demanding travel schedule, the difficulty of identifying delegates, and the ways they structured their campaigns.
Morales, who had been serving as senior minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., won the election June 27 at the UUA’s General Assembly in Salt Lake City with 59 percent of the vote. He was installed as UUA President during the Assembly’s closing ceremony on June 28.
Campaign officials said that one enduring impression from the recent campaign is how difficult it was to identify members of congregations who would be serving as delegates—the people who would actually be voting for president.
Congregations are not required to let candidates know who their delegates will be, and, as a result, many are not identified until they register at the General Assembly.
“That’s one of the weaknesses of our election process,” said the Rev. Wayne Arnason, chair of Hallman’s campaign and co-minister of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio. He acknowledged that some congregations were resistant to receiving campaign information and reluctant to help the campaign contact voters. “They felt there were privacy issues,” said Arnason. “They were unsure of their ethical responsibilities. I would argue that people who are willing to be delegates give up that privacy.”
Hallman, who retired from her position as senior minister at First Unitarian Church in Dallas at the end of the campaign, said, “There was an assumption that people running for office are on the outside. When we would send mailings or email or call church offices people often responded as if we were intruding. It felt kind of odd not being able to reach constituents who were going to elect one of us.”
Dea Brayden, who chaired Morales’s campaign and who has been hired as special assistant to the president, had some of the same experiences. “We had to cast a very wide net and get information to as many people as possible in the hope that some of those people were delegates or that they would convey our campaign message to delegates,” she said.
The campaigns found themselves walking a fine line between giving people enough information and offending them by contacting them too many times.
UUs seemed conflicted, Arnason said, about the value of an actual contested election. He noted that many people believed for almost one year that Hallman might run uncontested, until Morales declared his interest in November 2007. Before that, “there was buzz that this was a tragedy,” Arnason said. “Yet once there was a contested election, we began to hear complaints about divisiveness, anxiety about negative campaigning, and worries about the expenses of an election, along with the usual gripe that effective fundraising somehow means that a UUA election can be ‘bought.’ I presume that this election has put that fear to rest.”
Campaign finance reports filed in August 2009 by each campaign showed that Hallman spent $232,646 while Morales spent $92,420. (Hallman's expenses appear on pages 5–6 in this report and Morales' expenses are on pages 8–9. An article about the financial aspects of the campaign will appear on uuworld.org on September 28.)
“It’s my contention,” Arnason continued, “that most Unitarian Universalists believe that contested elections for the UUA’s top leadership offices are good in theory, but that when it comes to engaging with the actual work of elections—i.e., volunteering to do campaign work, receiving e-mail and calls from campaigns, arguing the issues, engaging in the inevitable polarities of politics, and taking a public position—most of these same UUs are uncomfortable or annoyed by what is required of them.”
Brayden said, “We spent a lot of time educating leaders in congregations about the whole delegate process. We found a surprising number of people, especially in smaller congregations, who didn’t know there was going to be an election, and others who thought that because they weren’t going to GA they couldn’t vote absentee. That information has to be put out over and over again. People were so surprised to know that they could vote absentee.”
The Morales campaign made a special effort to connect with small congregations, ones that perhaps had only two delegates and that might not have close connections with the Association.
Although only 44 percent of the eligible delegates from the UUA’s 250 smallest congregations cast votes, two-thirds of them cast absentee ballots. The level of participation from larger congregations (those with more than 50 members) was much higher, ranging from 59 percent of delegates from churches with 51 to 100 members to over 85 percent of delegates from churches with more than 500 members. (See this analysis for other breakdowns of delegate turnout.)
Fifty-three percent of the total votes in this election were cast absentee, the highest level of absentee voting in UUA history.
The Morales campaign was run by seven key volunteers in addition to Brayden: a communications director, two people who sought endorsements, two who organized and coordinated volunteers in the districts, one who helped out overall, and one who coordinated volunteers at GA. Approximately 80 members of Morales’s Golden, Colo., congregation volunteered at GA.
The Hallman campaign had three teams: a core group of advisors who were mostly ministers, a messaging team, and a district campaign team. Each had six to ten key people, said Arnason. Volunteers were largely organized by districts. About 60 members of Hallman’s Dallas congregation volunteered for her at GA.
For the candidates, the travel required for their campaigns was daunting. “It was clear that people expected to see us face-to-face during the campaign, but I’m not sure how effective that was,” said Hallman. “We would have back-to-back events halfway across the country, and it didn’t always seem that the events warranted the kind of travel it took.”
Morales said, “As I went through the campaign I thought, There must be a better way. It was good to get all around the country and talk to people, but it was repetitive.”
One of the logistical challenges was that many of the UUA’s 19 districts hold their annual meetings in the spring—events that the candidates were often invited to. “There were four or five on one weekend, and we managed to appear at two of them,” said Morales.
Arnason estimates that Hallman and Morales made about 30 joint appearances over the last year and a half. Many of these involved speaking to a congregation or at a district gathering on Saturday, then preaching on Sunday morning. “It becomes a brutal schedule, especially toward the end of the year,” he said.
Arnason had seen this scenario play out eight years earlier when he was the UUA secretary and responsible for managing the rules governing the 2001 elections for president and moderator. Initially there were three candidates for president that year: the Rev. Diane Miller, the Rev. Dr. Lawrence Peers, and the Rev. William Sinkford. (Peers withdrew before the election.) Arnason said that he tried to get the campaigns to cooperate in creating an appearance schedule that would be gentler on the candidates, but it didn't work out.
At the GA following that election, Arnason met with district presidents to propose cooperation around limits on presentations to districts. “That actually kind of happened in New England this time,” he said, “but mostly there was no interest in that conversation during this election. There was no desire on the part of most districts to try to help the candidates by coordinating their appearances or limiting their travel. All the districts felt entitled to personal visits, preferably by both candidates at the same time, and were disappointed if they didn’t happen in the year before the election.”
Hallman said she would have preferred a different format for the joint appearances of the candidates. “Generally we were introduced, we’d do a short platform speech, then take questions from the audience, to which we would give three-minute answers. I can count on one hand the times Peter and I actually faced each other and had a conversation. In the next election I’d like to see a series of conversations, moderated perhaps by the secretary, so that we could really discuss some of the issues in more than three-minute segments.”
Morales predicted that streaming video—footage of the candidates viewed on personal computers—will be more prevalent next time and will hopefully permit a less hectic campaign schedule.
Both campaigns put lots of energy into electronic tools, with uncertain results. Both had campaign websites, used Facebook and YouTube, and produced DVDs about their candidates.
“We never did evaluate what worked and what didn’t,” said Brayden. “We just got our message out in as many ways as we could. We didn’t get much feedback on these tools. We got the most feedback from people who saw Peter in person.”
The Hallman campaign, which held its first meeting in June 2006, three years before the election, had a website up early. But the campaign lagged, Arnason said, in not creating a campaign video sooner than it did for the UUA’s website and for distribution to congregations on DVD. The Morales campaign began organizing in November 2007 and had a video available in April 2008. The Hallman video was produced in February 2009.
Arnason said the Hallman campaign took more time than it should have to get the right message down on video. “We didn’t fully understand what it would take to produce good quality video,” he said, “including how much time it takes and how much a written platform sketched out for advertising purposes is not the same as a stump speech.”
Morales was very hands-on with electronic media, creating much of his initial campaign website himself. He blogged early on, but had to turn that effort over to others because of a lack of time. Brayden’s daughter created and maintained a Facebook page for Morales, which included campaign photos, campaign updates, and his travel schedule.
The Hallman campaign hired Revoluution Media, the company that created the website for the Church of the Younger Fellowship and other UU groups.
Both candidates made an effort to connect with voters by email as well. For a time the Hallman campaign had an “Ask Laurel” feature on its website until the questions came too fast for the candidate to keep up with. Throughout the campaign Hallman and Morales answered email as time permitted.
The Morales campaign sent two mailings to all congregations—the first one with printed information announcing the campaign and the second one with a letter and a professionally-produced campaign DVD. The Hallman campaign sent four mailings, said Arnason—one with the campaign DVD, another with a DVD of several of Hallman’s sermons, and two with printed material about the campaign.
The DVD was an important part of the Morales campaign, said Brayden. “Many people want to physically hold literature and put a disc into their computer or DVD player,” she said. “We heard from many congregations that had gatherings to watch the DVDs of both campaigns and to study the issues.”
Both campaigns agreed that, even with an electronic presence, face-to-face time with voters was decisive. Brayden said, “The lines of people waiting to speak directly with Peter at the GA booth in Salt Lake City are proof. We have so many ways to communicate at our fingertips, but still, people want to feel connected in a personal way to the candidate. Creating an emotional connection between the voter and the candidate will go a long way.”
Arnason agreed that face-to-face time was critical. “I think the value of the web and DVD and email contacts may be overrated,” he said. “It is, however, certainly more important than it was eight years ago for any candidate for president to be an effective media personality. In the UUA, however, strong performance during district campaign appearances is still as important as a good media presence.”
Both campaigns relied on an old medium—a newspaper—to educate voters at GA. “It had all our information in one place,” said Brayden, “and it was recyclable.”
Hallman said, “By the next major UU election, I am guessing that the delegates will have so much access to computers that paper newspapers will not be necessary. We felt that this was not the year to make that assumption.”
Every campaign tries to create and sell a theme that voters will connect with. The Hallman campaign initially presented Hallman’s belief that UU growth would come when congregations became “transformative spiritual communities” and not because of any UUA program, said Arnason. The theme of “Reaching Deeper” reflected her personal desire for congregations to reach a new spiritual depth.
But when some people expressed concern to the campaign that this was “somehow counter to Unitarian Universalism’s mission to change the world through deeds not creeds,” the campaign changed its messaging, said Arnason, to focus on “covenanted communities, engaged spirituality, and faithful stewardship.”
Morales’s platform, published at the start of the campaign on his website, was basically unchanged throughout the campaign. It focused on four points: the need for change in the UUA culture, creating a sense of urgency about growing congregations, continuing the UUA’s public presence on social justice issues, and embracing a multicultural future.
Arnason admitted to being disappointed that the Hallman theme didn’t resonate better with voters. “We misjudged the interest of the UUA electorate in what I would personally describe as a more sophisticated and nuanced election message that challenged our congregations to greater spiritual depth,” he said. “Instead, they responded to what I would describe as the usual successful election message: ‘Things are in a bad way; we can do much better; I’m the guy who can make that happen.’”
Hallman noted that the Morales campaign had a communications director, in the person of Tom Stites, former editor and publisher of UU World. “He was an essential element in the success of Peter's messaging,” she said. “I believe that, moving forward, any candidate will need to have a media strategist.”
Hallman added, “Earlier campaigns built momentum over a two-year-period. Our strategy was to do just that. [But] the media-based campaign begins with effective messaging the minute the campaign begins, and sustains that message clearly over the whole of the campaign. It is an important difference to be noted for future campaigns.”
Were there key moments that the election turned on?
The first opportunity for many UUs to see the candidates together was at a candidate forum at the 2008 GA in Fort Lauderdale. Both sides acknowledged that Morales connected better with the audience. “It took a while for Laurel to find her voice,” said Arnason. “Had her final presentation in Salt Lake City been her first presentation in Fort Lauderdale, this would have been a much closer election.”
Another key moment was the endorsement of Hallman by UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who was running unopposed for a second full term. Both sides reported a bounce from that. “When the moderator endorsed Laurel, [the Morales campaign] seemed to get a big influx of people who were suddenly ready to go public with their support,” said Brayden.
Should the moderator make endorsements? No, said Brayden. “Many people who wrote to us felt the moderator must be ready to work with either candidate.” Arnason said yes. “The fact that the candidate the moderator endorsed didn’t win this time makes me even more comfortable with the moderator endorsing. I think people should know where the moderator stands and who she/he would most want to work with. Ditto for board members.”
At its April 2009 meeting, the UUA board placed bylaw changes on the 2010 General Assembly agenda that would introduce a new method of electing a president and moderator. Currently candidates are self-selected and the process of seeking endorsements and raising money goes on largely behind the scenes. That process would be replaced with a committee-nominated slate of candidates. The new bylaws would also limit time in office to a single six-year term; the president and moderator currently may serve two four-year terms. Delegates will vote on this proposal at the 2010 GA in Minneapolis.
Under the proposed changes, a seven-member presidential nominating committee, appointed by the General Assembly, the UU Ministers Association, and the Board of Trustees, would choose two candidates. Other individuals could run for the presidency by petition. Candidates would be announced at the General Assembly one year prior to the election.
The changes are designed to increase congregational involvement in elections. The Board of Trustees would form a separate committee to nominate at least one candidate for moderator. The moderator chairs the board, presides at General Assembly, and travels on behalf of the Association. The moderator is also now the chief governance officer, a designation that has special significance under Policy Governance, a governance system that the UUA adopted in July.
If changes are made in election processes for the next time, Brayden hopes one of them will be for a deadline—in April of an election year, for example—for congregations to identify delegates and provide contact information for them.
“This would provide necessary access and equal access,” Brayden said. “With a target audience identified, the campaign efforts can be much more focused and resources more directed.”
Arnason said he supports the presidential nominating committee approach. “It may not deter us from having contested campaigns, however, that are just as brutal for the candidates as the last few have been. As far as whether elections can avoid being adversarial, I can only say, humans will be humans.”
Along with her wish for longer campaign conversations, Hallman said she hopes that next time it would be easier to identify and reach delegates, that more people might seek out the candidates electronically rather than require a personal appearance, and that UUs will recognize “that elections are an important part of our associational life.”
Morales suggested that the Association may want to rethink how candidates are selected, and who gets to vote. “For a movement that holds democracy as a core value, we tolerate a lot of processes that are very undemocratic,” he said. “For instance, it is very hard for someone who is not on the national staff or minister of a large congregation to run. I’d like to see a more open process. And the very nature of having delegates vote is kind of a nineteenth-century process. I’d like to have us at least explore a process by which members of congregations could come to congregational meetings and vote. It would do a lot to involve people in our congregations.”
Morales added, “It is also worth considering whether ministers have too much authority in electing officers of the Association. Ministers are given enormous power simply because many of them (automatically) get votes and can influence others. That’s just an observation, but it’s something we ought to consider as we move forward. It all comes down to how much do we want to empower the laity.”
He added that before the campaign he was “more sympathetic” to something like an electoral commission. “I am less so now, in part because it’s so easy for a small group of leaders to lose contact with the movement. In an era of such rapid change something like a commission would probably lean conservative. I worry that it wouldn’t be open enough to the winds of change and the grass roots. I want whatever process we develop to be as open as possible.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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