Candidates often complain about what passes for political debates these days. Last spring, at our Mayoral MillennialLab, I expressed my frustration with the inane questions candidates had thus far been subject to. (The low point may have been: “Does Philadelphia have a race problem? Yes or no.”)
“You’ve been frustrated?” Guffawed candidate Jim Kenney. “Try answering ‘em!”
So when Republican City Council at-large candidate Terry Tracy shamed us into hosting a debate tomorrow for the candidates vying for the two seats reserved for minority parties, we wanted to come up with a format that made an end run around inanity. Along with Committee of 70 and Young Involved Philadelphia, we came up with a unique plan: No moderator. No rules.
It would be inspired by the summer and fall of 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas went at it mano-a-mano in seven different cities. They didn’t need any deep-voiced moderators trying to trip them up. It was politics as real argument, not sideshow.
Could that work here, we wondered? Are our politicians equipped for that type of depth? We may be getting our answer. The current occupants of the Council minority-party seats, David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, as well as Al Taubenberger, have so far declined to join the scrum.
Maybe the freewheeling format is scaring them off. If any of you have access to any live—albeit trained—chickens, email me. Let’s put them in Oh, O’Brien’s and Taubenberger’s place.
I ran into Oh Saturday at Liberty Lands Park, where he was pressing the flesh at the N3rd Street birthday bash. I told him his decision struck me as a slap in the face to the voters.
“No, not really,” said Oh, who late last week first tweeted that he’d be participating before deciding that he wouldn’t. “I’ve done plenty of forums all over the city.” He said the problem is one of scheduling, that he has other commitments. Fair enough. But no other forum that Oh has participated in has been dedicated to just the candidates for the minority seats—one of the few remaining competitive races on the ballot. Nor has any forum’s format guaranteed such free-wheeling discourse.
I can’t help but sense that that’s what is really scaring off Oh, O’Brien and Taubenberger. An hour of real freewheeling debate? You’d better be prepared to go deeper than the pro forma 15 seconds soundbite. And if you’re Oh and O’Brien, you’d better be prepared to be the target of attacks from others who think they can do your job better than you.
So let’s reassure them: You’re smart guys. You’ll do fine. By deviating from the standard script, you may even stretch yourself and find your voice. Most importantly, showing up and getting in the ring would be a sign of political courage.
“Full disclosure,” I said to Oh, trying to shame him into showing, “we’ll probably have an empty chair for you, with your name on it.”
“That’s fine,” he said, smiling like the good sport he is.
Let’s do that one further. If any of you have access to any live—albeit trained—chickens, email me at email@example.com. Let’s put them in Oh, O’Brien’s and Taubenberger’s place.
We’ll have some fun with this. (Okay, maybe we’ll compromise and just have a chicken breast on each of their chairs?) But the point is a serious one. We want all the candidates there to test a proposition: Have we contributed to the shallowness of our political dialogue by not demanding more of those who seek our vote?
We received this email from Al Taubenberger at 3:15pm today:
“I am sorry I have a long standing fundraiser the same evening and time and can not make the debate. I was first notified about the debate on October 15. My event was planned long before that date. I know of no way to be in two places at once. However, I really like your concept.
Header Photo: Flickr/David Goehring