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To this story in CitizenCast

Welcome to the enhanced audio edition of Michael Nutter’s open letter

And go here for more audio articles, interviews and event coverage from CitizenCast

An Open Letter to CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash

In advance of the Trump/Biden presidential debate, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter shares some thoughts on a way to get the answers we really need to hear from the candidates

An Open Letter to CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash

In advance of the Trump/Biden presidential debate, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter shares some thoughts on a way to get the answers we really need to hear from the candidates

Dear Jake and Dana,

Last year, I may have pissed some people off by asking some tough questions of Philadelphia mayoral candidates at “The Ultimate Job Interview” public series hosted by The Philadelphia Citizen. In my view, whether hiring a mayor, governor or president, the applicant damn well better face some tough questions — the stakes are so high. Folks running for office are actually “applying” for a job, and the employers are the voting public.

Next week, you, Jake and Dana, have the opportunity to interview two candidates for the toughest job in America. I have immense respect for both of you as serious, professional journalists, and you don’t need advice from a recovering politician. But I wanted to share what I learned last year when I was in your position. In my view, when it comes to political debates, we’re in a moment in time when a different type of questioning may really be needed. Too often, candidates default to snippets of campaign stump speeches and they run out the clock on their answers — and the voters often learn nothing real or new about the candidates.

That’s why I would like to encourage you to approach next week’s debate like the employment interview it is, and test each candidate’s knowledge, character and practical readiness for the job. Just asking about national/international issues or horse race calculations might no longer be enough. I’d like to suggest we try to better understand how a candidate thinks and understands complex issues, rather than just regurgitating well-worn, focus group-tested talking points, slogans and grievances.

Ask them about … governing

When we think of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think we have to more fully examine and better understand the how and why of their thought processes related to governing, not just campaigning. Full disclosure: I know Joe Biden. (We all know Joe Biden, because he’s been around a long time.) Joe Biden is a friend of mine. Joe Biden certainly knows the intricacies of governing. But Donald Trump? I’m not so sure. Donald Trump is a campaigner and an entertainer. His command of basic facts of governing and government in this election ought to be fair game. And both candidates should be tested in this regard.

In my city’s mayoral election last year, I asked candidates very specific questions that revealed how much they knew about the office they sought to hold. Of the businessman who had never worked in government, I asked, “Have you read the Home Rule Charter?” — our city’s constitution. He hadn’t. He couldn’t tell the audience what the Sinking Fund is — it’s how you pay your debt service. And he said his most important hires would be chief of staff and managing director, whom he would lead, and they in turn would run the government. Being mayor, he suggested, was mostly “cheerleading.”

Too often, candidates default to snippets of campaign stump speeches and they run out the clock on their answers — and the voters often learn nothing real or new about the candidates.

Of the progressive legislator who had once said that, when she walked into a room, “systems of oppression fall,” I had to wonder just what that meant. After all, I’d never heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Teresa make such a boastful statement.

Some were critical of my questioning. “How many times did you read the Home Rule Charter when you were mayor?” one journalist asked. Oh, maybe 30, I said. You want to get shit done? You’d better read, if not memorize, the rulebook of the game you’re playing.

Some illuminating questions to ask

Jake and Dana, you have the opportunity to ask questions in this vein of Trump and Biden, questions that reveal just what each candidate does and doesn’t know, and to elicit how they really think about things. Here are some suggested questions, the answers of which I suspect will be more enlightening than eliciting the same old memorized talking points.

From our U.S. Citizenship Test, I suggest asking these questions of both men: (Answer key at end.)

1. What are the first three words of the Constitution establishing the idea of self-government? How do they inform decisions you’d make as President and leader of the free world?

2. How many rights are declared in the First Amendment, what are they, and what does the Amendment with which the Framers chose to open our founding document mean to you?

3. What are the rights declared in the Declaration of Independence?

4. Name two authors of the Federalist Papers.

5. What does the phrase “Checks and Balances” mean?

Here are some others, off the top of my head:

6. Who is Frederick Douglass?

7. What’s the Hatch Act?

8. What’s the War Powers Act and when was it adopted?

9. What president first recognized the state of Israel?

10. Name Ronald Reagan’s economic policy, and are you an adherent of it?

Finally, what are the principles that will be the basis of these candidates’ decision-making? Here, some open-ended questions to reveal what I call political character:

    1. Give an example from history of presidential leadership that led to a compromise that benefited the American people.
    2. Provide one specific example where you’ve used political skill to solve a problem, i.e., where you’ve brought warring factions together or somehow managed to bridge a divide in service of the common good.
    3. Please provide one example of you committing an act of political courage — saying no to a contributor, standing up to an interest group, taking a public position that could cost you an election, etc.
    4. In the context of Muslim bans and children being separated from their families at the border, what does the phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” mean to you? Does it conflict with your policies?
    5. What has the effect been on African Americans today of governmental, institutionalized legalized and legislated racism — from slavery to redlining to separate but equal to the banning of interracial marriage to civil rights and voting rights? From 1619 to 1865 to 1954 to 1964 to 1968 and beyond, Blacks and people of color have literally been second-class citizens as a matter of law. Do you agree, or not, and, if so, what work remains to address the inequalities that stem from that history? What specific steps have you taken or will you take to address these issues?

Please take all this for what it is: One citizen’s suggestion to deviate from questioning as usual. Because the stakes are too high this time around to just get more talking points. I know, Jake and Dana, as a Philly guy and a Jersey lady, you’ll do us proud.


Michael A. Nutter

98th Mayor of Philadelphia


Answer key: 1: We The People; 2: 5: Speech, Press, Assembly, Religion, Petition the government; 3: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; 4: Hamilton, Madison. 5: The separation of power, ensured through the establishment of three different branches: the executive, judicial and legislative; 6: 19th Century African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman who is no longer alive, Mr. Trump; 7: 1939 law limiting the political activity of executive branch employees; 8: 1973 law requiring a congressional declaration of war when a president sends the armed forces into action abroad; 9: Harry Truman; 10: Supply-side or trickle-down economics.


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