Friday, October 27, 2006

Mayoral Mob Scene

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.


Anonymous said...

Is it beneficial to us to keep saying the Mayor's position is "weak" when in fact it is not? We say it because we have an administrator that is removed from politics, yet the Mayor appoints the administrator. His job depends on the Mayor's support so the Mayor is actually quite strong. The Mayor also controls the agenda and what gets voted on, all appointments to Boards, and votes to break ties. The budget also belongs to the Mayor, over $150M! It's like if we say it enough, and the banana prints it enough, it must be true. Are we all that naive' or is it beneficial to have the uniformed electorate think it's not "that" important a position?

Anonymous said...

Gimme a break.. Will everyone stop sucking Rusk's dick long enough to realize that he did not have that much of an effect on this mayoral race? And for his future in polictics.. prove youself by getting involved in the community a little bit more, and quite bitching about the decisions being made. And, quite acting like your are the coolest guy in the room who talks no bullshit and drinks PBR on stage at a forum that looks to answer some importatn questions for folks. This is serious business that has enough bullshit and does not need anymore.

retired_cowboy said...

The term "weak Mayor" is a technical term that differentiates our system of government as defined by the Charter from the other form, known as "strong Mayor" in which the Mayor has the power to act without the approval of the Commission/Council and has usually has direct authority over the hiring and firing of department heads and can issue "executive orders".

We have a "weak Mayor" form of government, by Charter, but that is not intended to mean that the Mayor is weak or has no powers. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know that what the term is intended to mean so it's been embarrassingly funny that this has become some kind of an issue albeit a pretty minor issue in this election cycle. For people, even in the press, to discuss it the way it's been discussed lately makes us all look uneducated and silly.

Polusplagchnos said...

Why are "serious" and "cool" mutually exclusive, anonymous?

I'd think the image of a young, working adult (young, working adults, afterall, do drink alcohol) interested in participating in political craftsmanship is itself enough of a commentary for a voter who is interested in answers to important questions. That it answers these questions one way for you does not mean that is the only answer possible. But, I think you know this already, and just wanted the occasion to express your frustration.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Mr. Mitchell - a real debate would have been far prefreffable. The "sound bite" forum format used in virtually every Mayoral forum clearly favored those who had little knowledge or insight. I've personally expressed this opinion to almost every person involved in setting up the multiple forums that have been held so this is not a blind-side, after-thought expression of our frustration.

In a real debate, Heidi would have been able to put them all in the shade but anybody can ramble platitudes for 60 seconds. It was really the same for the other candidates - those who knew the most had little chance to show it against those who know almost nothing.

Compare candidate web sites if you want to see the real difference and then you may be able to decide. You could also email or call the candidates and see what you get - platitudes and nothingness vs. real answers. You may not agree with Heidi on everything but she won't leave you wondering where she actually stands on the issues!

If you want to know, you can get answers at:

If you don't know for whom to vote and you haven't tried talking to the candidates then, whom should you find at fault?


Anonymous said...

The thing with Rusk is he did the right thing and deserves credit for that. He rose exponentially in my book., but only because he there's a lot of room to go up when you are at the bottom. He's never done anything in this town to make him a serious candidate. The ABH being like I wish he'd run again seems a bit over the top. I'm sure the ABH would love to write stories about him, but he should be more of a political commentator than a candidate if he does not engage himself more in the political process.

Publius said...

Well, for once, I'm not going to disagree with Al-nonymous. (I kid because I love.)

The soundbite format isn't necessarily good for getting the campaign's message out, any more than a 30-second ad is. There are two things I would mention, though. First, because Americans are, in general, pretty apathetic about politics, I wonder if the vast majority of people who attend and listen to debates don't already have their minds made up. Generally speaking, anyone who takes time out of their life to see a debate is politically engaged and probably not undecided. This may not, however, be the case in the Mayor's race, where a lot of politically engaged people I know are still undecided.

Second, maybe the soundbite format does serve some purpose, in that I think it does encourage soft supporters and undecideds to seek more information. If a candidate says something that really hits home, I think folks will go to the website to learn more.

I actually agree with something that I think Al implies obliquely. (Al, I know you'll correct me if I misconstrue your words.) Athens is unique in having a large, educated, politically engaged population. We actually have an electorate where something beyond the normal soundbite format will work.

My question is, what would be a better format?

Finally, let me defend the humble soundbite. It's not all bad to be able to speak in soundbites. I think that candidates are communicators as much as they are policymakers, and we should expect them to be able to express a complex thing simply.

Polusplagchnos said...

I agree with one sense of publius's second mention mixed with the humble defense: the soundbite format works well if the candidate makes a categorical, brief statement.

That is, if a candidate says, "I am a classical liberal theorist who supports policy based on a Rawlsian analysis," that says a lot in a few words what sort of politics the candidate endorses. The same goes for "I am a staunch Republican party member who will endeavor to bring large, industrial businesses to our community," or "I am a committed Socialist Party member who will seek to take steps to return the means of production to the worker."

The problem, I think, stems from trying to make the soundbite be persuasive, when it can function very well as an informative activity. Of course, certain kinds of information can become persuasive ("A vote for me is a vote for the continuation in the war in Iraq," "A vote for me is a vote for repealing the ban on smoking in downtown businesses," &tc), but persuasion as a rhetorical act is very difficult to accomplish in a short span of time. Platitudes are far more ambiguous and trade more in positive claims, and so we'll see more of them as public time decreases.

But if a person stuck to identifying themselves, I think that can move people towards finding out more about the person if they become interested...

Anonymous said...

Those are valid points and my criticism was not meant to be harsh or even whiney. It was just as observation and a response to Mr. Mitchell's comment about it not being a real debate.

Publius is correct about the short attention span and the need to keep things more fast-paced in order not to put people to sleep. Still, I must stand by my earlier assertion that it's much easier to mask the fact that you really don't have any information or facts if you only have to kill/fill 60 seconds.

And then, there is the matter of the questions asked. There were a few questions asked during some of the forums and candiate questionaires (also usually limited in the number of words allowed in the responses) that were based on false premises and/or some basically erroneous information so, it's pretty hard to explain both the "falseness" of the question and provide an informative and persuasive response in such a limited time. I don't think that there is a perfect format - at least I don't think I'm able to design one. Getting out complete and accurate information regarding both positions and the context and the external constraints and opportunities for certain actions or proposals would take enough time for people to just zone-out.

Local government is perhaps more complex in many ways than federal government or maybe even state government because local governments are so heavily influenced and bound by the actions of the higher bodies.

I do like that Athens' electorate seems more willing to seek out information and demand more information but, everyone has their limits.

A great example that I've tried to deal with recently is the TAD stuff. I have actually practiced trying to explain that as quickly and simply as possible and I still can't do it in less than 5 minutes. I've yet to find anyone interested in listening for the full 5 minutes or more that it takes me to explain it. ;-)

I also agree that most people who attended the forums were not undecided voters. The Melting Point forums were probably the only exception and even there, the percentiage of undecided voters in the room was pretty small by my guestimation.

I think it's great that there are at least a few dozen people interested in how to make these opportunities more valuable in the future. I applaud everyone who has tried and is willing to keep trying!


monticello_pres said...

First, I'm happy to see someone beat me to the punch about young Andy Rusk. I might have been a little less graphic than the 2nd anonymous (10:12) above, but that certainly seems to be what everyone is tripping over themselves to do right now (except for Charlie Maddox). Every year some student or newly-graduated-student steps up and joins the fray. And that's great. But Andy didn't invent the new-nonpolitical-guy-jump-into-the-race-with-"fresh"-ideas concept. And he won't be the last. I'm fairly certain the next round of elections will include another of this type. But it likely won't be Andy. Congrats to him, and congrats to the next guy (or gal) that jumps in boldly and honestly. Let's just keep this in perspective, as enough newspaper ink has been spent on Andy.

Second, I do suppose the majority of folks at the forums have already decided. But in my opinion, if a few are undecided then it is worth it. And, it's worth it anyway. Someone may sway an opinion or confirm an opinion. That's what happened at the Cedar Creek Civic Association forum for me several weeks ago. I had a lean and 2 folks confirmed for me that lean was correct. Also, for the record, our current Mayor couldn't have been more brusque and discourteous before and during that event. If she had been among my choices, that would have certainly pushed me away. But that's just me.

For those interested, there's one more event on the 30th (Federation of Neighborhoods). For those not, November 7th is almost here.

Fishplate said...

"Every year some student or newly-graduated-student steps up and joins the fray. And that's great. But Andy didn't invent the new-nonpolitical-guy-jump-into-the-race-with-"fresh"-ideas concept."

Anybody remember the Paul Butchart For Mayor campaign?

Anonymous said...

where is the federation of neighborhoods thing tonight, please?

Anonymous said...

Continuing Ed

Anonymous said...

Correct - F.O.N. Forum at Continuing Ed 10/30 with fun and games at 7. Forum at 8.

Todd Mitchell said...

Al writes: "The Melting Point forums were probably the only exception and even there, the percentiage of undecided voters in the room was pretty small by my guestimation."

Nah, all that cheering and whooping going on in the room was the licker!

I agree, the "undecideds" are probably small, but I wasn't blowing smoke when I confessed my own fence-sitting position. I still don't know...and it's almost time to vote.

Publius said...

It was clearly a pro-Heidi crowd there, and there's nothing wrong with that. Al, if you guys stacked the audience on purpose, then good on you. That was old school, and a perfectly valid tactic. (Done it myself, back on the Coolidge campaign.)

Of course, if you guys didn't pack the crowd (and I'm betting you didn't) then it shows that there's a pretty strong, vocal crew out there for heronner.