One of the four billboards in Fresno, California placed at strategic locations to reach CA-22 voters. September 17, 2018.

by Frank Gallant

SANTA CRUZ – Monday, September 17 was a launch day for Santa Cruz Indivisible, especially for Ken Reichman, one of the organization’s dedicated members.

That was the day billboards went up at four strategic Fresno locations promoting Democrat Andrew Janz for the California District 22 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives now held by Republican Devin Nunes. Reichman had labored long hours over many months to make it happen.

Each billboard is 11 feet six inches by 23 feet six inches, and grabs your attention with a striking photographic image of white and brown children and adults holding hands. The message on the upper left, “Families Belong Together,” is balanced on the lower right by “VOTE for Andrew Janz.”

Santa Cruz Indivisible (SCI) members sponsored the billboards under the auspices of the Valley Works PAC because, as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, it is limited in the ways it can either support or oppose a political candidate.  

These are not the giant political billboards commuters pass by on state Route 99 between Fresno, on the northern end of District 22, and Visalia, near the southern end, but Reichman believes they’re in the right places to move votes from the Nunes column to the Janz column on Election Day, November 6.  

Beginning last March, Reichman studied the demographics of every city and large town in District 22 and 21 before focusing exclusively on Fresno and neighboring Clovis, the largest population center in District 22. He looked at ethnicity, age, education and 2016 voting patterns with an eye toward the best locations and the most effective message.

“I had never done billboarding before, I had never done politics before, so I did a lot of research – too much!” he says.

“I was getting up at four o’clock in the morning and working for four hours. I did this three or four days a week for three months. It kept me from feeling helpless, hopeless and depressed.”

Like many progressives, Reichman saw Nunes as President’s Trump’s lackey for closing down the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to keep the truth hidden. And Nunes’s silence on the cruel separation of immigrant children from their parents was making him increasingly angry.

Besides working at his computer, Reichman made three trips to Fresno to scout locations and negotiate with billboard companies. Once he learned the Route 99 billboards cost $2,700 a month to rent – well beyond SCI’s means – he settled on the idea of “micro-targeting” voters driving on busy inner city streets.

Ultimately, Reichman recommended four locations to SCI Executive Director Carson D. Kelly and the SCI District 22 committee headed by Masina Hunnicutt: Shaw Ave., an east-west artery that bisects downtown Fresno and connects to Route 99; Blackstone Ave., which runs north-south through major shopping districts; Clovis Ave. near Fresno-Yosemite International Airport; and Ashlan Ave. near, Reichman points out, Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center with its popular water slides.

These neighborhoods are heavily Hispanic, especially Ashlan Ave., which is 45 percent Hispanic and 35 percent Anglo, according to Reichman’s research. Clovis Ave. has the highest number of Republican voters.

Twenty-five years in charge of marketing and sales for an international semiconductor-processing equipment company made it easy for Reichman, 72, to negotiate with the billboard companies. But a 10-year first career teaching courses on child psychology and parent-child relationships to community college students was the life experience that motivated him to see the billboard project to its completion, he says.

Reichman worked on and off for weeks on message and image concepts with Sara Friedlander, a Santa Cruz multi-media artist and ARRT (Artists Resist and Respond Together) leader. He also got feedback from Central Valley Indivisible in Fresno.

He showed me a mock-up of a billboard showing a frightened immigrant boy behind a chain link fence. Big block letters spell out “SILENCE = ACCEPTANCE, VOTE NUNES OUT.”

But after Kelly and Friedlander talked this concept over with a communications consultant it was decided to go positive. Billboards that were for Janz and families, not against Nunes and Trump would be more effective both in majority Hispanic neighborhoods and neighborhoods where the target was disaffected Republican voters, they concluded.

Friedlander took on the stressful job of designing and producing a new billboard on a tight deadline. She says it took weeks to find a Hispanic family that would agree to participate in a photo shoot (they were afraid of repercussions). Afterwards, she spent nearly 20 hours manipulating 15 separate photos to make the final hands-holding-hands image.

Final billboard image by Sara Friedlander.

An SCI billboard fund-raising drive started earlier brought in more than $5,600, according to Marilyn Humphrey, the drive’s energetic leader. That was more than enough to cover the $5,500 Reichman negotiated to rent the four billboards for two months — 49 days leading up to the election and 10 days after it to — cross your fingers! – savor Janz’s come-from-behind victory.

More than a third of the total, $2035, came from “selling” 2018 Midterm Election VOTEive candles at SCI events and farmers markets for, mostly, $15 and $20 donations. These are the tall, slim votives you see on the shelves of Hispanic grocery stores. But instead of a picture of a saint, each one has a picture of the statue of Liberty holding a “Vote” flag on one side and these instructions on the other: “Light 3 times: 1) When you register. 2) When you plan to vote (date & time, polling place), 3) When you cast your ballot.”

ARRT members Madaline Tomlinson and Karen Gallant (full disclosure: she’s my wife) organized work parties to decoupage Liberty and the instructions on the candles’ glass holders, and then, in a second step, decorate them with plenty of colorful and textural “bling.”

VOTEive candles made by the ARRT group. In total there were 300 made.

The remainder of the funds came in response to “ask letters” sent to family, friends and SCI members by Reichman, Humphrey, Friedlander, Mimi Edgar and others, as well as from these District 22 committee members themselves.  

Reichman feels confident that the four SCI/Valley Works PAC billboards will, like the billboards in the 2017 movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” change hearts and minds.

“Along with the majority Hispanic community, our other major demographic target is Republican women – mothers,” he says. “A lot of polling has shown that women are fed up with Trump’s misogyny and his cruelty to families on the border. We think we can get some of these voters to cross over.”

Frank Gallant was a magazine writer and editor in Washington, D.C., for 28 years. He lives in Soquel, Calif.

Want to see the billboards in person and help support Andrew Janz? Sign up to canvass in CA-22 this Saturday October 6. Details HERE.