The LWV New Brighton Candidate Forum - Superficially Revealing
All candidates for the most part attempted to answer the questions posed within the ridiculously short time allotment (some questions were ducked or were obviously misinterpreted, but nothing really flagrant). The format is particularly bad where there is a large number of candidates in the field as was the case with the City Council candidates.
A real problem with the format is that there is no time or provision made for rebuttal. During the presentation some of the candidates obviously, whether intentionally or because of inadequate knowledge of the subject, mis-stated some facts that those of us who follow city government know darn well were wrong. There was no opportunity for a candidate to rebut an erroneous statement made by another that could make them look bad, or for a candidate to defend challenges to their assertions. This is an inherent problem with the format but, since all of the candidates were equally hampered by it, the net result should have been a wash other than contributing to an overall shallowness of the event. One candidate did however manage to circumvent the rules to get in a cheap shot at another candidate (one not even running against him, at that!). More on this later.
The mayoral candidates were up first. Watching this it was obvious that the restrictive format was much better suited for Mayor Larson, a career politician not known for intellectual depth, than for the quiet, analytical Dave Jacobsen, a first time candidate coming from a long private industry business career.
Larson mechanically delivered his usual "how much I love public service and give to the community" canned sound bites and rattled off sanctimonious accounts of his civic involvement while avoiding directly addressing issues with any specifics. If you're a fan of Politician Buzzword Bingo, Larson is definitely the guy you want to have a card for at one of these events.
Jacobsen held his own and addressed the questions posed to him head on, at least summarizing his thoughts and positions in the inadequate one-two minute per question time limit. Having watched Mayor Larson and his clumsy ineptitude for years and after talking to Dave Jacobsen about his campaign, I strongly recommend voting for Mr. Jacobsen to bring some sorely needed competence and dignity to the office. As Jacobsen said in his closing statement, let's give Mayor Larson the opportunity to become a full-time baby sitter for his grandchildren.
Overall, the mayoral forum didn't prove much, though a few points could be concluded. Those of us who watch the goings-on at City Hall saw the well-worn, pat answers, and stretches of the truth we've come to know and expect from Mayor Larson. If one watched closely you could tell Larson does not like dissent or contradiction. His body language subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) went into full defensive mode when Jacobsen made a point he perceived made him look bad or revealed some stretch marks that had been inflicted on the truth. Jacobsen gave confident and sincere answers with as much substance as could be expected to be squeezed into the short alloted time. It did appear obvious which one of the men was the career politician plying his trade and which was just answering questions posed to him as best he could in the permitted time.
The City Council part of the forum was also pretty superficial - actually even more so than the mayoral portion due to having to make time for seven candidates to respond. Even so, some conclusions could be drawn if one listened closely.
Going around the counter from the audience's left to right:
Graeme Allen looked to want to play the role of the fresh new face with fresh ideas, but appeared to carefully avoid a lot of specifics. There seemed to be a problem with his microphone and with his rather soft-spoken demeanor he was sometimes hard to hear. All in all while he was polite, credible, and obviously a bright guy, he didn't really say anything to distinguish himself from the rest of the field. This definitely did not appear to be an ideal format for him, given his softspokeness and lack of experience as a political candidate (he does have experience as lobbyist and and behind the scenes politico). I got the impression that he really wants to hold elective office but does not appear to have fully thought out what he wants to do if he is elected.
The next two candidates were interesting and had similar styles. Ron Meyer (a former military man with experience on city commissions) and Paul Jacobsen (a current military man with a clear military demeanor), showed good public speaking ability and booming, authoritative voices that commanded attention. Both of these guys would have gotten by just fine if their microphones had completely failed.
Meyer is a good and engaging speaker, but emphasized a self-described complete non-political philosophy and was all over the map regarding issues. He looked to be saying whatever he wanted to regardless of what the specific question was. Nice guy, good talker, but no core convictions or substance. I'd definitely vote for him to be the life-time Stockyard Days Grand Marshall or the voice of New Brighton at a Chamber of Commerce event, but he does not seem to be a credible council candidate, especially given the decisive action needed to address the many problems the city faces.
Jacobsen was confident and positive, but was very short on specifics and just plain wrong in some statements regarding city staffing and public safety. He also did not seem too informed on matters concerning spending and the budget. He strikes me as a good family man and a fine representative of our military, but I was a disappointed in his obvious lack of knowledge of city government and his demonstrable mis-statement of the facts on some issues. This was made even worse by his authoritative tone. He struck me as having the potential of becoming a skilled politician who will confidently forge ahead and not let facts and figures get in the way of presenting what he thinks the audience wants to hear. Before his performance in this forum I had penciled him in as a possible worthy replacement for Sharon Doffing, but now is on my "very skeptical" list.
Char Samuelson was the only other candidate besides Gina Bauman with council experience (she served on the New Brighton City Council before her two terms as State Representative). She gave what I thought was a surprisingly lackluster performance. Her answers and qualifications for the office did not stand out among the other candidates with no council or elected office experience. She was cheerful and gracious to the other candidates, but said very little, if anything, substantive, other than that she would vote to raise taxes if the city needed the money. Besides that she really didn't say anything objectionable, but also didn't say anything remotely close to impressive. I don't think anyone watching who did not know of her previous elected positions would have come to the conclusion that she has such experience. She is clearly a likeable person but did not show any passion, qualifications, or drive for the office she is seeking.
I felt that Walt Witzke gave a good accounting of himself. He is a quiet, non-imposing figure, but has experience on city commissions and is obviously engaged in the process. As a fellow engineer I appreciated his no nonsense analytical approach to the questions and he did a good job directly answering the questions and getting in as many specifics as one could expect in the restrictive time allotment. He is obviously a very smart guy who knows how to apply analytical thinking to a problem. He does not project the stereotypical image of a politician (to me this is a plus) so it's hard to gauge how effective his campaign will be. I haven't seen enough of him to go so far as an endorsement or recommendation, but I did not see anything from his performance in the forum (which is all I have to go on) to be critical of.
W. Christopher Stedman's performance was a bit puzzling. He is a good speaker with a deep, attention getting voice (not quite to the level of Meyer or Jacobsen, but still impressive). After hearing all of his answers I felt that he never really answered the implicit "why are you running" question. He didn't say anything objectionable and acknowledged agreement with several of the other candidates on some non-controversial issues, but didn't really stake out a firm position on anything. Seems like a likeable guy that hasn't quite fully thought out why he really wants the position or what he would do if he got it. He's young and energetic and may be better suited to get involved on a city commission as a pre-requisite to perhaps a future run for office after getting a better feel for the local political scene.
As would be expected Gina Bauman, the only incumbent, was head and shoulders above the rest of the field with respect to direct answers to questions, command of facts and figures, and general knowledge of the issues and the workings of city government. The limited time format was pretty restrictive but, even in spite of having to deal with some problems with her microphone, her depth of knowledge and passion for the position clearly came through as she was able to work a lot of facts and figures as well as some informative insight as to how city government works into the short time allotted. I supported Gina in her first run for office four years ago and feel that she has done an excellent job on the council. I heartily endorse and recommend a vote for her in the election.
The most telling moment of the evening came when Mayor Larson, who was hanging around outside of the council room during the City Council portion of the forum, apparently disagreed with a statement made by Gina Bauman in an answer to an audience question. He had one of his cronies send a note to the LWV moderator (or perhaps she took it upon herself) via a note card in the same manner that audience questions were being collected. On receipt of the note the moderator then announced that there was a "correction" and read Larson's statement to contradict what Gina had said. Regardless of whether or not Gina's statement was correct (it was, by the way) the ham-fisted move was in direct violation of the ground rules for the forum. The LWV moderator should have had the good sense to ignore this completely out-of-line action, but Larson or his minion should not have made the request in the first place.
Gina and the other council candidates had no opportunity to rebut Larson's bogus "correction" or to offer their own "corrections" to anything said by any of the other participants. There is a good reason for this rule - if not in place and enforced the forum could easily break down into a "that's a lie"-"no it isn't, poopy pants!" back and forth. Larson could have made a statement to the media after the fact if he disagreed with what Gina said, or waited until his opening statement at the forum next week, but he just couldn't resist inserting himself into a discussion that he wasn't even a part of.
This revealed a lot about the character, or lack thereof, of our illustrious mayor. This inept stunt was not a surprise to those of us who have observed how thin-skinned and defensive he can get when someone says something not to his liking. I've always had the impression that Mr. Larson feels rules apply to everyone else but not to him, and this was yet some more confirmation.
We the voters have the opportunity and the power to at long last clear the stage of this pathetically lame act that has had a grueling 22-year run. If enough of us vote for Dave Jacobsen we can force Mayor Larson to trade in his taxpayer paid membership in the North Metro Mayor's Association for a free, entry-level membership in the Babysitter's Club. I'm sure he could handle the position and make his grandchildren as well as the people of New Brighton very happy.