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Tiny votes, big drama: Tales of power, politics, and intrigue in Richmond's city council race
An inept clique, two contestants, and a spec of data
The American midterm election this week is the mother of data stories — and among them is from the city of Richmond, California’s city council race, District 2.
Most local election produce very little data. It’s no different for the city of Richmond, northeast across the bay from San Francisco. In this week’s District 2 elections, just 2,203 votes where cast. The final tally for the two contestants, plus text like “final tally,” might fill about five lines in today’s New York Times. But data stories from that race — and other local races around the country — could fill the whole edition with notes on the human condition reflected in those numbers. Those stories would explain how those few votes came to be divided the way they were and what it means about the city’s past and its future.
None of this would require a single pie chart, bar chart, line chart, and certainly not a scatter plot. The election’s tiny data could appear as text, unadorned, left to shimmer in the light of its origins and meaning.
The big question is which story to tell first. The answer depends on one’s agenda.
None of this would require a single pie chart, bar chart, line chart, and certainly not a scatter plot.
If you talked to any dozen people in District 2’s main neighborhood, the artsy and educated Point Richmond, you’d find a broad vein of anger at the city’s dominant political clique. The Richmond Progressive Alliance’s ascendancy disrupted a brief period of intelligent management, including a new police chief who had introduced “community policing.” By most accounts, it was working. Richmond actually fell off the FBI’s “most dangerous cities” list. But the RPA seemed antagonistic to police, any police. A local, deeply flawed version of “defund the police” followed — going well past the inane slogan to disastrous implementation. About 35% of this week’s vote went to the RPA.
A closely related story is about one of the two District 2 candidates, Andrew Butt. His father, Tom Butt, is a longtime city councilman and now the outgoing mayor, is a bitter enemy of the RPA. Father and son work at the local architecture and engineering firm the senior Butt founded, and they both promote intelligent, well planned development. Unfortunately, both have the debilitating tendency to react defensively to even mild criticism that a better politician would use as an invitation to tell a better story. Andrew, like his father, is a bitter enemy of the RPA.
Does the data tell these stories by itself? Of course not. What data has ever “told a story” on its own? That’s done with words.
Yet another story is Andrew Butt’s opponent, Cesar Zepeda. He’s young, well liked, and by far one of the most talented political storytellers I’ve seen. Unlike his victorious opponent, he has a knack for slipping past opposition smoothly while he makes his points. He lost this race and his previous bid. But he’ll win something soon enough, and I wouldn't’ be surprised to see him someday reach the state legislature.
Those are some of the race’s genuine data stories, all from a handful of numbers: Butt’s 1,176 votes, or 53%, and Zepeda’s 1,027 votes, or 47%, in a meager turnout.
Does the data tell these stories by itself? Of course not. What data has ever “told a story” on its own? That’s done with words. Words can convey feelings, and charts can’t. No chart can say “artsy and educated,” “broad vein of anger,” “inane slogan ,” or “disastrous implementation.” It’s that stuff — with data as the cornerstone — that makes a story.
If that sounds like journalism, it is!