The balancing act in political candidate debates

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One of the things I've gained during this campaign is a new appreciation for how challenging it can be to produce and facilitate a meaningful and substantive political debate that is valuable to voters.  Between the spring primary and the general election, I can think of at least eight events where myself and some combination of other candidates for office were asked to debate (or converse, or discuss) the issues facing Richmond and Wayne County for an hour or more.

At each event, as a candidate I've tried to balance a series of (sometimes competing) goals for my participation, including:

  • Authentically presenting my true self to the audience while also trying to make a good impression
  • Speak clearly and intelligently about those issues, getting specific whenever possible, in a very limited amount of time ("you have two minutes to lay out an economic development strategy for the next four years - GO!")
  • Highlighting substantive differences in approach and perspective between myself and my fellow candidates, without engaging in any personal attacks or petty remarks
  • Actually answering the questions being posed while also tying them into the bigger picture and what might be meaningful to voters
  • Being humble and gracious in my comments while also showing that I'm someone who will stand up for what's equitable and just
  • Making use of the time given to speak without dominating the conversation
  • Showing respect and appreciation for all points of view while calling out problematic logic or misleading statements

As you can guess, doing all these things well and at the same time is quite an endeavor!  It's one that I generally enjoy, but it also consumes a lot of energy and is quite a vulnerable experience.  My hope is that the end result is meaningful to voters.

I think there's also value in previewing how a would-be officeholder might handle the debates, discussions and conversations that they would engage in once elected.  Do they actually get to the heart of the matter, or do they engage in pandering and circuitous logic?  Do they stay focused on specific positive outcomes, or do they keep coming back to what they're against and who to blame?  Are they willing to listen carefully and change their minds along the way, or are they intent on showing everyone how right they are?

These qualities will directly impact the ability of (in my case) the City Council to get work done and move the community forward.  I've appreciated those who have told me that when they've watched the debates I've been a part of with these kinds of questions in mind, they've seen even more notable differences between candidates than even the answers to the debate questions might reveal.

Of course, not everyone watches debates that way.  For some people, it's about who "wins" or who comes across as the strongest, most powerful presence.  I certainly understand that for the organizations hosting the debates, it can be more interesting to produce an event where some sparks fly and the tension rises.  That's okay - I've said all along that we have to be careful not to be too polite to each other when the future of the City is at stake, but we also have to make sure we don't turn the conversation into a shouting match, as some of the Presidential debates happening right now seem to have become.  It's hard to talk credibly about collaboration and inclusive leadership when you're also brandishing a knife.

I appreciate all the groups who have made the unusual number of local debates and conversations possible and accessible in this election: the Chamber of Commerce, the Palladium-Item, WCTV, the Human Rights Commission and the Student Initiative for Equality and Justice, Center City Development Corporation, Friends Fellowship Community,, WHON, and others.  Thank you!

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