So I went to the Melting Point on Wednesday to see the Mayoral candidates square off, expecting very little in the way of substance or surprise, and basically got what I expected...very little in the way of substance, but perhaps a bit more surprise.
First, I don't know why they call these things "debates" anyway. No one is "debating" anything at these forums. Instead, each candidate is trying to rush their views into a 60 second sound byte, some being more successful than others, but no one really being able to say enough to move a voter from one camp to another. The questions, while adequately posed by Flagpole, Banner-Herald and Red & Black, were standard "debate" fare; too much time on sewerage, not enough time on any "hot" topics like underage drinking or the smoking ban.
That said, my impressions of the candidates really weren't formed until the closing two minute statements. And by the time they were done, I was more confused than ever about for whom to vote on November 7th.
Andy Rusk dropped his withdrawal bombshell during his last two minutes. While having provided comic relief throughout the debate, Rusk had the audience cheering at the end, arguing he didn't want to split the "townie vote" with Mayor Heidi Davison, and that "discretion being the better part of valor" it was time for him to "take a powder". While he half-heartedly threw his support her way, he also praised the other candidates, especially Charlie, for being "great guys". I agreed with Heidi when she said "I hope you run again". With a little more seasoning (and a few fewer PBR's at the debate table), the dude's got a future in politics here.
Richard DeRose stuck to the same themes he's always stuck on/with. I still don't get DeRose, beyond his status as perennial mayoral gadfly, and I don't know if he threatens this every four years, but he said he was just about through with Athens and the University of Georgia, and that we "didn't have much time left". I'm still not sure I "got it", but it was certainly a strange campaign theme: vote for me or I'm leaving town.
Tom Chasteen was over-scripted, wooden, expressionless and stiff during the debate and during his close. I've seen Chasteen more animated at Commission meetings at 3am than during this debate, so I'm not sure what gives. With all the support and base he's built over the years in this town, he should be doing better than he is. I wouldn't underestimate that base, but as a candidate he's got to come off the script and speak more from the heart.
Charlie Maddox surprised me at the end. After offering up various platitudes all night regarding the issues, his closing statement was more revelatory than Rusk's. Voice cracking, pausing to gather his composure, Maddox let loose a seemingly heartfelt tirade on his being an independent, "own man" candidate, and not a stooge for the Chamber or Republicans. I don't know if he's done this kind of thing before (crocodile tears), but his "I'm unbought and unbossed" channeling of Hosea Williams was a powerful, dramatic moment in a "debate" that lacked any soul or interest up to that point. It definitely had several people exchanging "WTF?" glances at one another.
Heidi was Heidi. When she finally stopped scribbling long enough to look up and address the audience (I swear, she was writing on legal pads the entire time she sat at the debate table), she captured her passion from four years ago. Her closing statement reminded everyone in the room who voted for her four years why they did, and really made an impassioned case for another term. Her command of the issues was stellar, and she laid out a brief but comprehensive plan for the next four years, should voters give her that chance.
I agree with Pete McCommons when he wrote that Heidi can be "prickly" and not the most warm and fuzzy candidate you'll ever meet, but we're not electing a den mother, folks. This is Mayor. And while we have a weak Mayor system, you've got to have someone in the hot seat who can, when necessary, corral the other personalities on the Commission and bring some kind of order to the mess. Perhaps Tom Chasteen is that guy, and the robotics were just an act. Perhaps Heidi Davison deserves another four years to keep asserting herself. Maybe Maddox is his own man who wants be the candidate of everyone.
Try to attend the last "debate" if you can. You should meet your candidates and see them up close to form an impression. Me? I still don't know who I'm voting for. Maybe if we could get the leading three candidates to actually debate, I might be able to make up my mind.