May 30 2012 10:51 AM

Even Bill Walton leaves a political message

5-30 spin art
Bill Walton (left), robocaller
Photo by David Rolland

"Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you."

—Ogden Nash

Politicians can't get enough of you, oh likely voter.

In their desperate attempt to win your vote, candidates reach out in numerous ways to grab your attention: the ceaseless television and radio ads, social media and— shock!—even the old-fashioned one-on-one flesh-presser, the howdy and a handshake.

And while we constantly groan at the TV during political season, begging for a return of an infomercial for the Forever Lazy over another pol making promises or bashing an opponent, is it not the automated phone call, otherwise known as the robocall, that gets our dander up the most?

As a disclaimer, Spin Cycle will point out that his household is composed of one Democrat and one Decline-to-State. As such, the Spin home is apparently the Holy Grail for political telemarketers. In recent weeks, dozens of recorded calls have entered our lair, and all apparently violate a California law that prohibits such calls unless: 1) they're introduced by a live person, or 2) they're made by an organization or company with which you already have a relationship, or 3) they come from police or fire about an emergency.

And, no, a politician worried that he or she might lose by a handful of votes is not considered an emergency.

There are indeed far-off lands— the states of Indiana and Oregon come to mind—where these automated calls are outright banned for businesses and political candidates, and where the law is respected. Imagine such utopian quietude!

So, if California has a law on the books, why still all the robocalls?

Ask Shaun Dakin, founder of the Washington D.C.-based Citizens for Civil Discourse and the growing National Political Do Not Call Registry, and he's pretty blunt.

"California has pretty much the same law as Indiana, where there are no robocalls. But they've had attorneys general who decided to enforce the law," Dakin told Spin Cycle. "California, with a law that governs through the state Public Utilities Commission, unfortunately has no attorney general who gives a shit. And the PUC doesn't have the cojones to do anything about it."

California, by its sheer population numbers, naturally sees an inordinate number of robocalls during election cycles, although Dakin said there's no empirical data to demonstrate the volume. "That would require campaigns to open up their books, and we know the likelihood of that," he said snarkily.

Dakin, however, does note that roughly 20 percent of the 450,000 people across America who have joined his political no-call registry live in California. But he said that only 30 politicians nationwide have signed on to honor the registry, most notably California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who for years has unsuccessfully called for limits on the automated calls. (A robocall she recorded years ago that was supposed to go out at 3 p.m. was delivered to callers instead at 3 a.m., which did not go over well.)

Studies over the years have shown no appreciable value to these automated calls for politicians, and yet they grow more pervasive. Dakin said that in 2008, an estimated 49 percent of U.S. registered voters said they'd received robocalls. That number rose to 69 percent two years later, and Dakin has no reason to believe that number will drop for 2012.

"You can't convince politicians that these calls don't work," Dakin said. "Even though they're annoying—find me one person who says they like robocalls—these politicians aren't going to pass up a chance to gain even one voter, particularly if the laws on the books aren't being enforced."

Local pollster John Nienstedt, who runs Competitive Edge Research & Communication in Bankers Hill, agreed. "Obviously, campaigns and others violate this law all the time," he said.

He said his firm conducts neither robocalls nor robopolls. "Neither really work," Nienstedt argued. "I don't sell things I know are ineffective and harmful. But using a robot to make calls is exceedingly cheap, and a consultant who buys them can tell the client he's doing something: ‘We made 20,000 calls in support of your campaign!' Of course, since they don't work, the money was wasted anyway."

Nienstedt clearly doesn't like how robocalls affect his own business— "The whole robocall thing makes it harder for legitimate polling firms to do their work," he noted—but it's hard to compete with a practice that costs pennies, or fractions of pennies, per call.

Tom Shepard, campaign strategist for Nathan Fletcher's mayoral campaign, said he uses robocalls because they're "relatively inexpensive, quick to produce and can be targeted." The downside, he acknowledged, is that "voters become irritated when they get too many. They are best when they're short, sincere and the speaker is credible."

So, it was quite a shock when Spin picked up a recent phone message and heard this: "Hey now. I'm Bill Walton, a proud and loyal native son of our beloved San Diego."

Bill Walton? The lanky UCLA Bruin basketball great and NBA Hall-of-Famer once regarded as Mr. Counterculture for his wild political views and fondness for all things Deadhead?

"I always try to stand tall for fair play, credibility, integrity and truth. Today amongst us, fringe extremists are attacking Nathan Fletcher on TV, in the mail and now by phone," automated Walton says in the 92-second message, considered long by robocall standards.

Walton goes on to say that the forces behind Carl DeMaio are trying to scare Democrats into voting against Fletcher because, the message goes, DeMaio can beat a liberal like Bob Filner but not "independent" Fletcher in the November general election. "They are selling fear," he says chillingly.

Automated Walton goes on to say, "I have never done a political phone call like this, but people with the work ethic and character of Nathan Fletcher don't come around very often."

Spin tried to talk to Walton about the automated call, but when reached by phone, he said he was heading into a meeting and couldn't talk.

Yeah, those pesky unexpected calls. So irritating sometimes.

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