Your favorite weekly newspaper, the Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Main Street Program will host a candidate forum for the five candidates for Common Council in the Municipal Building Thursday at 7 p.m.
(But you knew that, because you’ve already read page 1. Therefore, you also know that if you don’t show up — and you’re certainly welcome to come and watch — or choose, say, the NCAA basketball tournament instead of the candidate forum, you can still watch the forum on the city’s YouTube channel, PlattevilleWISC. Note, however, that Marquette plays Thursday at 2:10 p.m., Wisconsin plays Friday at 11:40 a.m., and Iowa plays in the National Invitation Tournament.)
That invitation goes to, you might notice on page 1, Platteville residents and other Platteville stakeholders. The idea that, for instance, the owner of a Platteville business doesn’t get a say in city business because he or she doesn’t live in the city is, frankly, ridiculous given the amount of taxes businesses pay and the impact of employment on this city.
My intent as the forum moderator is to have a conversation among the two incumbents and three challengers about the issues that have come up in the campaign. (However, if things get unruly, remember, candidates: I have three pre-teen children, so I am capable of being as loud and emphatic as necessary.) Each candidate will have a chance to make an opening statement and a closing statement, along with answering my favorite question, “Why should someone vote for you?”
The rest of the questions will come from the obvious issues The Journal’s coverage of the Common Council and this campaign have revealed — the city’s fiscal condition, property taxes and fees, the council’s management of city operations, the council’s management of the city manager (or vice versa), city staffing and the 37-hour work week for city hourly employees, business development, UW–Platteville and the city, Second Street’s issues, and, yes, decorum at Common Council meetings — along with, as time allows, questions raised by those who email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t plan on using a stopwatch to cut off a speaker. I hope the candidates will speak their piece without getting long-winded and will be respectful to each other and to the audience. If a simple, short answer is appropriate, extending it out to cover a certain number of seconds isn’t useful for anyone. The forum will be a success if the viewers — that is, the voters — feel as though they know what they need to know to cast an informed vote April 2.
Candidate forums are useful in municipal-level races where voters have the most impact, and where a voter might get the chance to get a question answered. (Anyone who had a question the voter wanted answered during the 2012 presidential campaign was better off trying to get an answer from the Platte Mound.)
Debates between candidates probably go back farther than the Lincoln–Douglas debates, but they have been more or less required since the 1960 Kennedy–Nixon debates and certainly since the 1976 Carter–Ford debates. I don’t mean to insult those interested in forensics when I claim that the presidential debates are almost completely useless for determining a candidate’s fitness to be president, or how he or she would do as president. In fact, debates aren’t very useful for executive positions — presidents or governors — at all. Executive-level politicians make decisions; they do not cast votes, and statements need not be made in a two-minute time limit. A one-on-one interview would be more useful to find out what a candidate for president or governor espouses.
For legislators — senators, members of Congress, state senators or legislators, and obviously city council candidates — such joint appearances as debates or forums can be quite useful. They can show off, for better or worse, a candidate’s persuasive skills, which is useful when an issue comes up where some aldermen aren’t decided pro or con. How candidates interact with each other is revealing too given that a successful candidate is only one vote out of several, or many in the case of a county board.
Candidate forums are especially important for challengers. It isn’t enough for candidates to say what they’re against (usually, things the incumbents have supported); challengers must tell voters what they are for, too. Even if the challenger supports things the incumbent does, the challenger needs to convince voters that he or she would represent his or her constituents better than the incumbent does. Challengers need to take whatever opportunity they can to overcome the fact that incumbents, because they’re in office and the news media cover them, have a built-in name recognition advantage over their challengers.
My intent is not to catch any candidate in a “Gotcha!” moment. Even though I’ve witnessed an unusual number of such moments in my work over the years (my first murder trial and a school board meeting in front of 200 people, to name two), I assume that when someone says something he or she shouldn’t have in a public arena, it is merely saying something he or she shouldn’t have said, not the public unveiling of that person’s innermost darkest feelings.
Candidate forums are useful, however, to get candidates out of politician-speak mode, although that’s probably not an issue in a city council race. The more places there are for voters to learn about the issues and the candidates, the better. Advertising has its place, media coverage has its place, and forums where incumbents have to defend their records and challengers are challenged to explain why they’d be better have their place too.