CHAPTER 6 | A few years back I was having a conversation with a veteran Sacramento political consultant over a contentious Assembly race in the East Bay between Rob Bonta and Abel Guillen. The consultant was flummoxed over the lack of debates in the East Bay. It’s something that, I too, had noticed and often merely conflated debates with candidate’s forums even though I knew they were as different as Democrats and Republicans. “Do other parts of the state have debates?” I asked. “Everywhere except the Bay Area,” he replied. “You guys are the oddballs.”
So why don’t we have real debates in these parts? During the last two presidential primary seasons, cable news networks have seen their ratings skyrocket televising the 90-minute civics lessons. People love the give-and-take between candidates along with the potential for a spectacular blunder to occur at any given moment. It’s like Nascar for political nerds. But this doesn’t happen here. Instead, staid candidate’s forums hosted by homeowners associations, chambers of commerce and the League of Women Voters pass as debates. In reality, they are nothing more than the personification of a boring election guide. Each candidate gets two minutes to answer one question, often unrelated to the problems of the city or district, and without any ability to probe each others comments. The entire process is then repeated six or seven times and everybody goes home. In addition to the lack of information there is also a void of any entertainment value. It’s no surprise voters eschew these events.
The infamous 2012 forum between Stark
and Swalwell succeeded because Stark
treated it like a debate, not a forum.
This arrangement also suits candidates very well. It’s already difficult for many candidates to articulate their ideas in a public forum, imagine who scary it would be if they risked being made the fool by opponents? But, that not our problem. Instead, a generation of politicians in the East Bay have gotten away from having their records slapped and stomped around by opponents in a debate setting. If, for instance, Scott Haggerty ever faced an opponent for Alameda County Supervisor for once in his career and participated in a debate, do you really think he would escape the event unscathed? Would he look like an empty suit? Would he say something completely inappropriate? And without debates, we will never know whether a candidate like Haggerty, or anyone else, is able to defend themselves under pressure.
In a few weeks, candidates for the Hayward City Council will meet for a candidate’s forum at City Hall. The seven candidates will sit in the controlled setting and likely be asked to respond to a question that goes something like this: “What are your ideas for attracting new businesses to Hayward’s downtown?” Good question, right? Hayward’s downtown has struggled for years, but I’ve heard the same question for five years straight and the answers given are always vague and of little value. However, if the same seven candidates participated in a debate where each candidates answered questions posed by a moderator and was allowed to challenges opponents one or two times, the responses would be telling. In fact, a challenger could utilize knowledge of the incumbent’s votes on various business-related topics and directly ask them to defend their position. The public might not recall the incumbent’s vote, but if the challenger did their homework, they would be ready to go on the offensive and score some points. In a candidate’s forum, there is very little a challenger can do to overcome the incumbent’s advantages of money and name-recognition.
The most famous candidate’s forum in these parts occurred two years ago when Pete Stark called Eric Swalwell out for allegedly taking bribes. That was a League of Women Voters forum in Hayward. Stark severely hurt his re-election that night because, in fact, he treated the event like a debate. Despite the questions posed by the moderator, Stark continually circled back to skewer Swalwell. At one point, he called Swalwell a “junior leaguer.” Former San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young, who was charged with running the forum, continually admonished Stark for undermining the group’s rules on decorum. If she had been successful, Stark might still be in Congress. Instead, the political theater made it a memorable night. As it is now, the best thing about candidate’s forums is the free chocolate chip cookies and coffee.
ONE-TRICK PONY? Senate Constitution Amendment 5 is not necessarily on the state’s radar as a political hot-potato. At least, not yet. The amendment authored by state Sen. Ed Hernandez essentially wipes away the controversial Proposition 209 passed in 1996, which made it illegal for state universities to give preferential treatment for admission based on sex, gender, race and nationality. Some would call it affirmative action. If you haven’t heard of SCA-5, which the State Senate passed last January, then you haven’t been paying attention to Republican Peter Kuo, a candidate for the State Senate’s 10th District. It’s basically the entire thrust of his campaign against Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, Mary Hayashi, Audie Bock and Roman Reed. Incidentally, groups opposing SCA-5 are most likely Chinese American, which makes the issue particularly potent for Kuo, who is from Santa Clara County and where a large Asian American demographic resides.
HERE AND THERE Michael Colbruno, as expected, pulled consideration for Oakland’s District 2 council seat being vacated by Pat Kernighan. He says he will back progressive candidate Abel Guillen…During last week’s Oakland State of the City, Mayor Jean Quan ticked off the names of dignitaries in the audience, but, unless I wasting paying full attention, she left out one notable name: City Auditor Courtney Ruby, her newest mayoral opponent sitting in the audience…Oakland’s early list of wacky mayoral candidates took one huge step toward performance art when a candidate named Bane Capital Ruby Paige Askew filed earlier papers to run this November. A twitter account purporting to be Askew wrote Mar. 6, “Put my name down for Mayor.” However, earlier came this tweet: “MY SON MADE ME GO TO CHURCH TODAY ON MY WAY HIGH AND DRUNK PRAISE THE LORD. WHICH IS REALLY PRAISE LORD CUPID KRISHNA HINDU.”…When SEIU Local 1021 vowed to defeat members of the Hayward City Council who voted to impose wage cuts on its city workers, it failed to find a suitable candidate for mayor. Other than the three council members running to replace Michael Sweeney, a fourth candidate, Rakesh Kumar Christian, may be one of the most bizarre candidates ever. He also ran for governor in 2010 and again this year. According to his Web site, he favors the use of some strange mnemonic devices.