Editorial: Candidate Forums Should Be Serious, Inclusive
City Times Staff
Candidate forums are an excellent method for large groups of voters to gain an inside look at issues relevant to the community, but also at a candidate’s viewpoints and priorities. If the forum is held correctly, voters should walk away with answers to almost all of their questions.
But forums with thinly-veiled agendas can- and sometimes are- one of the most dangerous elements at work in any election season.
Such was the case on Wednesday, when a group called Central Wisconsin Grassroots Coalition (CWGC) held a mayoral candidate forum at Kristin’s Riverwalk. The merits of holding a political forum in the back room of a noisy bar notwithstanding, the forum took place before about 30 local residents- many of whom were current or former city employees, and with several self-identified AFSCME members present. That number waned by about half over the four-hour event, which posed union-related questions seemingly designed to incite a specific answer to four of the six mayoral candidates- many of which had nothing to do with the office for which they were running.
In between jabs at former Mayor Andrew Halverson, the candidates were asked about their support for a city ordinance setting a minimum wage, the Bus. 51 project and guaranteed overtime for city workers. The forum was poorly moderated, questions by the event organizers were reworded for each candidate and questions were called out at random by some in the audience- including one gentleman who seemed to have consumed a bit too much libation.
But the event did not seem public-friendly and many of the questions did not represent concerns of the city as a whole- questions about the city’s enormous acquired debt service was never even broached. Event organizers inserted their personal opinions into questions, ostensibly to trigger a specific answer relative to each respective candidate. At one point organizers even allowed a former city employee, Ron Check, to pass his own opinion off as fact on the background of the two candidates who were unable to attend- Jerry Moore and Tony Patton.
Check alleged that Moore was historically not worker-friendly, and said Patton spend his time on the Council “in the mayor’s back pocket”.
But this is far from the only forum which offers topic- based questioning to candidates. The Portage Co. Business Council (PCBC), too, shares some of the blame. Each election season it holds a members-only candidate forum for the most local races and poses business-related questions including, “What will you do to attract new businesses to the area?”, and “How will you support existing business?”. These are quite vital bits of information for voters, and good questions to ask of anyone vying for the chief executive spot, but it’s far from the only topic relevant for discussion.
The PCBC receives over $100K annually in taxpayer funds for their work as our Chamber of Commerce; their forum means little unless the general public is welcomed to hear what potential elected officials have to say.
The Stevens Point League of Women Voters holds the most voter-friendly event, typically at the Portage Co. Public Library. These events are often jam-packed with area residents and should present an excellent forum for candidates to sound off. Unfortunately, the League generally offers softball questions in very broad terms, and often are either outdated in relevance or relate to state or federal issues.
Candidate forums can clearly be intimidating for those seeking office; and it seems even more so when the group conducting it has a political agenda. The key for a successful forum is to ask uniform, un-opinionated questions of each- in a quiet space where they aren’t competing with a disc jockey in the next room- and allow for their full answer while prohibiting outbursts of emotion from the audience. To do otherwise will leave your targeted constituency with half-truths and conjecture on which to base their vote.
We’ve already seen how well that works in some local races.
Forums need to be strictly moderated; when a candidate does not answer a question, he or she should be asked again. When a candidate cites incorrect information in an answer- that too must be addressed and corrected immediately. The candidate is asking for a job and the public trust- it is the moderator’s job to make them earn it.
Anything less is an enormous disservice to the voting public.
Any race with six contestants is going to be marred with rushed answer periods and time limitations for getting their messages across. But Wednesday’s forum was far from a professional event; difficult for curious attendees to have taken seriously, and one almost sympathizes with Alex Kochanowski, Barb Jacob, Bob Larson and Mike Wiza for having to endure it.