Last Wednesday's Charleston mayoral debate pretty much had everything, didn't it? A moderator of national status, nice lecterns, lighting, TV cameras, a live audience, questions from panelists and the hoi polloi, and, of course, a clear winner — a candidate who broke through and claimed the stage and took home all the cookies. And that winner was...
Well, it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what we mean by "winning" a debate. Frankly, it depends on many things which are simply the sort of hocus-pocus nonsense that drives a lot of political campaigns these days, if not since forever.
For one thing, a debate like last week's in Charleston, or the one the day before in Las Vegas for the Democratic candidates for president or those held for the GOP candidates earlier this year, isn't really a debate at all. It's an extended Q&A or town hall, mostly with very safe, predetermined questions that are often aimed at primarily giving candidates a kind of sink-or-swim opportunity to showcase themselves. These so-called debates aren't aimed at getting politicians to highlight policy as much as they are designed to see if politicians can deflect criticism.
Mixed into all that is the possibility that candidates will simply go after one another's record (or finances or acquaintances or whatever they feel can either elevate themselves or drag the opponent down). But in the end, it's typically a pretty meaningless exercise in a lot of ways. Most people finish watching a debate supporting whoever they liked at the beginning. In the meantime, a lot of money gets spent to make the whole thing look polished and professional; it's all part of the burgeoning industry supported by our seemingly never-ending election cycles.
Now, the Charleston debate wasn't quite that bad, although it did share enough of the negative qualities of larger debates that were somewhat jarring. There were some very good questions presented to the candidates, and some of those good questions got some interesting answers, if not answers that were particularly satisfying (at least, of course, to people not supporting whoever was talking).
There were also a few interesting moments. When William Dudley Gregorie pointed to himself, as a long-time City Councilman, as having just as much an influence on Charleston today as Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. (not once, but twice), it elicited some amusement from the crowd, but it didn't change the fact that Gregorie's comment ran counter to the Great Man myth that Mayor Riley's 40-year term has generated. After all, a mayor alone, even one with a record-setting time in office like Riley, does not work in a vacuum and cannot do everything by himself. Still, Gregorie's boasts came off as, well, the tiniest bit boastful.
Then there was state Rep. Leon Stavrinakas, who, despite being a Democrat, sounded like a Republican every chance he got, proclaiming the need to cut taxes and asserting that better education, not reparations, will fix what ails the black community. Stavrinakis also sounded every bit like the polished career politician he is, particularly when he utterly demolished Ginny Deerin's ill-advised attack on his vote against a $400-million transportation bill by stating that it would have raised taxes on Charlestonians — oh no, taxes! — without bringing "one inch of roads" to the area.
Deerin might have recovered from that lapse nicely, though, if she had stuck to talking about her policies and plans, something other candidates frankly had trouble with. Unfortunately, she cluttered her response about traffic near the College of Charleston by breathlessly describing it as a "crush of cars, bikes, skateboards, pedestrians, and texting and going the wrong way on streets and crushing and squeezing and it's dangerous and frightening." Couple that with Deerin's closing response which began with a rapid-fire, staccato word salad, sounding a good bit like Billy Joel rattling off random historical events in his song "We Didn't Start The Fire."
John Tecklenburg, who for some reason I almost feel as though I want to like, somehow managed to say a couple of pretty insightful things, only to let them get lost amongst the rest of what he said which, honestly, I don't even remember. Maurice Washington and Toby Smith both also gave some great answers to questions, and perhaps even spoke with the sort of conviction that Tecklenburg seemed to lack, but they also gave a couple of troubling answers, particularly Ms. Smith and her notion of putting clergy into public schools as a way to help children.
But all of this brings us back around to this bizarre notion of who "won." Well, according to Ginny Deerin's people, she did. Of course, that's about as helpful as Leon Stavrinakas releasing a poll a few weeks back, one which his campaign paid for and that showed him comfortably in the lead.
I suppose this is just where Charleston is now: a world-class city with a political battle that aims at emulating some of the good and some of the bad of the national election circus. At the end of the day, though, it's just sad that the only people who don't seem to "win" these debates are the people of Charleston.