Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, NJ Politics Edition

NJ Senate President Steven Sweeney probably wasn’t thinking of some glib queen in Cherry Hill scrutinizing his much-buzzed “Twitter Thursday” campaign. Maybe he should have been.

(Camden County, NJ)–They say showing up is half the battle and in that sense Senator Steve Sweeney’s big twitter debut was a success. I’m here to talk about the other half. The less successful part.

Let’s examine what went wrong:

I first learned of Sweeney’s Twitter Thursday from the Star Ledger

Sweeney – considered a potential candidate for governor in 2017 — announced today that he will hold weekly “Twitter Thursdays” beginning this week, in which he’ll answer at least five questions from followers who can ask him “anything they like.”

Why? Because, well, in Sweeney’s own tweeted words, “#Twitter is a great way for elected officials to stay directly in touch with the people.

Let me just stop right there and ask you: Is that not the most stilted-sounding tweet you’ve heard/read this week? It’s totally unimaginative, tells us nothing new, and (worst of all) highlights just how far Sweeney has to go to catch up to fellow Democrats Senator Cory Booker and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop whose deft embrace of social media makes Sweeney’s recent Twitter tilt appear amateurish.

On Style

Sweeney’s never gonna have Booker’s smooth-talkin’ skills. And next to a much younger, nimbler Fulop, Sweeney’s tendency to come off as ‘blunt instrument’ is exacerbated, especially on Facebook, Twitter, et al. Case in point: hash-tagging the word “Twitter” on Twitter.

Sweeney actually has a habit of randomly hash-tagging words like “shared services” which mean something specific here in New Jersey. But in #HashTagLand, “shared services” is not two neighboring townships sharing trash collection duties, for example. Search “#SharedServices” on Twitter and see for yourself. New Jersey never even comes up.

As for Sweeney’s desire to “stay directly in touch with the people” that’ll become much easier once he (or his staff) learn to try to speak the language of Twitter a bit better.

In addition to the Star Ledger piece, Twitter Thursday got loads of attention down in South Jersey. The Philly Inquirer, KYW radio and the South Jersey Times all heralded Sweeney’s new-media foray as well. Likewise it’s also on BlueJersey.

In light of its execution, Sweeney’s Twitter performance was overhyped in advance. (Which at least means Sweeney’s staff is good at sending out press releases, a skill that’ll come in handy once his PR squad develops online skills to match their ability to send a boilerplate fax to reporters.)

It’s worth mentioning that Sweeney’s initial take on Twitter was decidedly less open-minded (back in 2010) when he reacted to online criticism with this gem: “I don’t pay attention to tweets,” he said. “Anybody who tweets, to be honest with you, I don’t pay attention to them.

On the one hand OUCH. On the other, kudos to Sweeney for coming this far. I’ll take a halting, awkward Twitter Thursday over wholesale mockery 9 times outta 10.

On Substance

Steve Sweeney also had — by virtue of this new Twitter-thing he’s doing — an opportunity to substantively engage followers on a broad range of issues. And while the topics of taxes, cannabis prohibition and professional sports came up, none was addressed in a particularly substantive way on Twitter Thursday.

Let’s take the cannabis as an example, chiefly because I tweeted him about the very topic and Sweeney replied:

me: @NJSenatePres do you think a cannabis decrim bill could pass the senate? Ru prepared to take on @GovChristie’s retrograde marijuana policy?

Sweeney: @jay_lass We have legislation in the Senate that examines this issue. But I can’t imagine the governor would ever sign it. #AskSenPres

First of all, I know there’s a bill in the Senate already, that’s why I asked (duh) and secondly the actual question was “DO YOU THINK IT WILL PASS?”
I also asked if cannabis might be an issue Sweeney could use to challenge an otherwise-popular Governor Chris Christie on policy grounds. Poll numbers notwithstanding, Christie’s views on pot don’t square with most folks in New Jersey, or in America for that matter. And Sweeney again answered a question I didn’t ask with an answer I already knew. Everyone knows Gov. Christie won’t sign a bill to expand marijuana legalization. It’s why I used the word “challenge” instead of “play footsies.”

The cannabis exchange was mildly unsatisfying. But when the topic turned to guns and gun safety etc, things went from bad to worse.

NJ.com:

“Sweeney took to the Twittershpere today as part of a new Twitter Thursday initiative designed to put him in touch directly with constituents…. the vast majority of queries came from gun rights advocates. A group of seven 2nd amendment rights advocates barraged Sweeney with question after question, most of which went unanswered…..In all roughly 50 of the 65 posts from users using the #AskSenPres hash tag came from gun rights advocates.”

I tend to agree with our Senate President on gun safety issues. And I mostly rolled my eyes at the 50-something tweets from gun enthusiasts. That said, gun folks were right to be miffed that Sweeney pretty much ignored them altogether. Not engaging with detractions after initiating a dialogue with the Twitterverse is lame. It’s the Twitter equivalent of farting then leaving the room. And in this case, there’s an opportunity-cost to letting your opponents drive the debate. With the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre upon us, Sweeney could have seized control of the argument with common sense and reason. Alas, #crickets.

Conclusion: Stephen Sweeney’s tip-toe into the Twitter-pool was the worst digital rollout since Obamacare. And for a few hours Sweeney’s much-vaunted social media debut actually gave NJ Democrats something to cringe about besides the President’s rough patch.

If I were forced to assign a grade, Twitter Thursday gets a C- at best. Since this is Sweeney’s first time at the races, it’s probably fair to give him an “Incomplete” for now. The good news: it’s early days in Senator Sweeney’s Twitter career. I hope Sweeney manages to dial in on this whole New-Media thing. He’s a likable guy and if he could channel that likability in 140 characters or less it would be a wonderful thing.

Metrics

 
Looking at the math it’s hard to deny my “Incomplete” grade was rather generous. The metrics don’t suggest a promising twitter future for Sweeney. His numbers the morning of his first Twitter Thursday were modest: 357 tweets sent and 1679 followers. Fast forward a week and Sweeney’s tally registers 385 tweets and 1767 followers. What do you call a .0525 bounce in follower-ship following your big debut? Baby-step perhaps?

Tweeting is a goofy art. It takes practice.

And it take a skilled communications team (as evidences by the ongoing success of Team Booker and Team Christie.) My advise to Sweeney: Fire your twitterer-in-chief in favor of a more cunning linguist who’s competently capable of channeling your principles and likability.

(P.S. I’m available.)

Long-time New Jersey political observer Jay Lassiter is best known in Trenton harking the end of marijuana prohibition, fighting for gay rights and working to end NJ’s death penalty. He’s a big fan of Steve Sweeney and he’s also on Twitter @Jay_Lass.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, NJ Politics Edition