Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Last Word…Maybe

(Owings Mills, MD) The annual primary debates at MPT are in the book. Earlier in the day all of the GOP candidates had the opportunity to make their case (the debate will air Friday, 6/5/14) during the time slot of State Circle.

The heavy weight event however, was the Democratic Primary Debate where my colleague Jeff Salkin moderated a Town Hall style format of undecided voters. These were people picked by the League of Women Voters who have been MPT Partners for some time. The group skewed older and white but, there was a smattering of color in the group.

There is always a delicate balance of MPT management coordinating an event like this with nothing left to chance. We learned this the hard way several years ago during a U.S. Senate Debate when Professor Alan Litchman, an uninvited participant, was removed from the building because he wanted to join the debate.  This year a fringe candidate (Cindy Walsh) made an attempt to get into the studio. She was promptly escorted from the premises.

These are unique choreographed events with each camp not wanting to interact with each other or seen being cordial. Separation is the key, leave little to chance. Yes, all three invitees showed up, no no-shows. Unlike in the past, the press was camped in an adjacent studio where my fellow scribes were hunched over their screens waiting to pounce. They have been through this song and dance before (and so have I). In my best impersonation of Judge Miles Lane, “let’s get it on.”

Blows But Nothing Fatal

I know in my mind the ability to get candidates off script is the key. The audience wants to see something of a heavy weight fight but, for all intents and purpose this is about the future of the state. The platforms and talking points have been repeated.

“I am the most experienced candidate in the field having served as Lieutenant Governor... and I'm an Iraq war veteran,” says Candidate Anthony Brown. “I’m not running for the job as Governor. I want to do the job as Governor,” an often repeated sound bite from Candidate Heather Mizeur.  According to Doug Gansler, “people are tired of labels (Democrat or Republican),” trying to improve his standing with independents and disaffected members of GOP.

In the primary it is about the base and getting them to the polls. It’s also about raising cash and the Brown/Ulman ticket has produced a wind fall in this area(in a short period). During the home stretch it comes down to buying TV time in the Baltimore or DC markets. Spend too early, and you can’t react to last minute attacks. Not enough money and you are essentially a bystander.

I believe the Brown Camp learned a valuable lesson when its candidate didn’t show up for a Debate at Fox 45. Be ready to answer critics. It was evident as the Brown Camp was ready for any mis-speak about the Lieutenant Governor. Several Press Releases (commonly known among the press corp as Pressers) showing previous statements were being handed out among our group.  Let me say this with a degree of understanding but, uneasiness about this process. Public Relation types want to the control message. The number of staffers dedicated to monitor my writings is small. Can’t imagine how many social media watchers and other staff monitor what is said about candidates in the state. This is not a new phenomenon. The Obama Administration has raised this to high art.

All the staffs conduct mock debates with stand-ins to coach nuanced answers to complicated questions. For Brown he continues to be dogged about the failed roll out of Maryland’s Healthcare Exchange. Gansler’s albatross is a pair of issues; how can you provide tax relief and his opposition to Pre-K expansion. Mizeur’s suggestion of using taxes from the sale of marijuana to fund much needed programs seems either utopian (without seeing its potential consequences) or amateur night politics.

This continues be a race for Brown to lose, and the opponents are looking for any opening to provide doubt. This is immediately pounced on by a question from the audience about the rollout of Maryland’s Exchange. Brown is asked to explain why the state is going with a Connecticut system? Candidate Brown has rehearsed this answer. He steps from the seated stool and moves towards the audience. He acknowledges the website rollout was a failure however he assures the questioner while looking at the camera that they signed up a record number of Medicare recipients. He’s forceful. Sun Critic, David Zurwick observed Brown seem to be playing to the camera rather than connecting directly to the questioner (semantics).

Gansler who is asked the same question rebuts the answer suggesting we should go with the federal system which has a lot of success despite its shaky roll out. He then narrows-in on the Browns participation and handling of the rollout. This he hopes will make voters think about Browns leadership.

Mizeur also jumps in on the failed rollout. She was a former Healthcare Lobbyist so her answers are less wonkish but, seem to pile on the perception of, “leadership failure.”

In a follow-up by Moderator Salkin, he quotes an editorial by the Baltimore Sun. It asks what role the Lieutenant Governor played in the failed rollout of the website. Salkin asks him to rate it on a scale of 1 -10. By time he finished answering, even I was confused. He claims he was in charge of the wrong committee.  The committee overseeing the roll of the website wasn’t under his control? But we fixed it. Duh. Here’s what I said on Twitter, “Brown asked what role he had in health exchange? Is vague w/answer. Won't give number on how involved he was on a 1-10 scale.”

Zurwick siezes on this stumble as a not ready for prime-time television. As I see it, if you admit it was a failure (which he has), what lesson did he learn from this and how will this impact him if he is the Govenor.

When it came to taxes, Gansler wants to cut them for small business by closing a corporate tax loop hole. Poplar however gives few details. Brown’s answer is nuanced. He’d like to look at cutting taxes. Admits he was not a fan of the Governor’s position to reduce Estate Taxes (sometimes referred to as Death Taxes). Brown didn’t like that it was carved out for a small group, mostly millionaires. Mizeur, sees the legalization of marijuana as the panacea. He’s I how described this exchange on Twitter, “Are taxes 2 high n MD? A lot of I want to do this & I'm going to…can we be competitive w/VA.”

Yes, the candidates hit on areas of the environment, housing, and job creation. While important this is dialogue which can’t go on forever. Debates allow us to reinforce our image of a selected candidate, it can also raise doubts about our choices. These aren’t neatly crafted one minute vignettes with soothing/ominous music in the background. These are adults asking for your vote. A debate is never the last word but, the beginning of a conversation that each of us has when we step into a voting booth to decide who and how we be led for the next four years.

To see the debate you can find it below.