Candidates’ Night Is No Help

Last night I went to a nearby local candidates’ forum. What struck me is just how bad the entire experience was. Yes, I know that’s heresy.

This should have been no surprise. On some level, it wasn’t — across America, local politics is always marked by an amateurish, “Our Gang” feel (you know, “Let’s put on a show in the barn!”). But I realized during the event that recently I’d romanticized democracy. “Citizens” had become these idealized, democratic beings who just want to make the best choice come Election Day. “Candidates” had become, in my mind, altruistic characters who sacrifice their time and energy for the greater good. And “candidate debates” such as the one I had attended had become the apex of democratic process, the perfect place in which democracy is practiced.

What was I thinking?

The candidates sounded fine — but only fine. The choice folks are facing in November is not much of one: knock out the shrill, fringe candidates and whatever they do collectively in the voting booth will garner well-meaning folks who will try their best. No one stood out as a leader. But, one may argue, that’s not the role of municipal government. We can’t have Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan as mayor in every town.

No, it’s the group of civic associations that put on the event that was the most disappointing. The event created an experience that actually worsened people’s relationship — if there had been any — with the candidates. So much of what the organizers had done in the name of “getting more input” from citizens created a barrier between the audience and the folks up on the stage.

First, questions were solicited in advance from citizens. That’s a good thing — it allows people’s concerns to be addressed. But the questions were read verbatim and so were all slanted according to the questioner’s biases. Here’s one: “In the past, we have developed property and then assessed its traffic impact. What are you going to do to make the planning process more logical?” The moderators needed to put their own biases aside and rephrase the questions so there wasn’t an obvious “right” answer.

Second, the candidates were given no free time in which to talk about their vision, who they are, and why they are running for office. Citizens got no sense of who those people were. All they learned was how they responded to loaded questions.

Third, the candidates only had a minute to respond to each question. That’s long enough for a platitude about “working together,” or “communicating more,” or maybe even one about “making the tough choices for the people” — but it’s not long enough to say anything else. The incumbents, in an effort to sound competent, filled their sixty seconds with acronyms of ordinances and initiatives they had been working on, confusing any in the audience who were not professional city council-watchers. The challengers, for their allotments of time, dwelled instead on the lying, evil ways and shortcomings of the current administration — or they talked about “working together” more.

The shame of it is that this local candidates’ night was completely ordinary. Events like this are going on across the country, organized in the same way with the same results. The event leaders mean well — but they create an event that pushes even the intrepid out of the process.

Needed are more ways to learn who these people are, not just where they stand on issues. An event in which the candidates are all gathered together would be a great place for that . . . but now people will have to go to a dozen ice cream socials (there are a lot of candidates and each one has their own events) to find out. But how many will really do that? A civic opportunity has been squandered and the residents are the worse for it.

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