Guest Columns

HUDSON: LESS IS MORE

Did we really need so many debates and forums with Denver’s mayoral candidates?

In a one-party town like Denver, the charter provision requiring a non-partisan mayoral election has opened the door to City Hall for underdogs and outsiders like Federico Peña, Wellington Webb, John Hickenlooper and Michael Hancock.

That’s the upside, and one well worth preserving. The downside has been a growing propensity for vanity candidacies that clutter the general election campaign with the bizarre distraction of festering grievances and personal obsessions. While it might be helpful to raise the petition signature hurdle for this latter group, they probably cannot and should not be excluded from the ballot.

The larger problem has been the proliferation of sponsored debates, forums and town halls that suck up the time and attention of serious candidates, while providing a microphone for minor candidates to massage their egos as they flog their narrow agendas. This problem first surfaced in 2003, but exploded into a fully formed alternate reality during the recently concluded municipal election. I attended more than thirty of the fifty or so pre-runoff events. With ten or more candidates participating in most of them, candidates were only afforded a few minutes to introduce themselves, their issues and their proposed policies.

At more than half of these, the public audience was significantly smaller than that of the staffs in attendance to support the candidates. Persuadable voters were even fewer. It was common for several such events to be scheduled each day. They became repetitive, boring and wholly lacking in substantive information. The media largely ignored this dance and began to restrict its own events to the major candidates. Nonetheless, an absence provided the candidates in attendance with an opportunity to bash delinquents for their failure to value the profound policy concerns of the sponsoring left handed model train enthusiasts. The entire campaign rapidly became ensnared in this artificial world that did more to isolate mayoral candidates from voters than to expose them.

Before we undertake another open race for Denver Mayor, some rationality needs to be restored to this process. City Council should encourage Channel 8 to partner with a few major civic organizations, like the League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce, to arrange a schedule of official forums. Six or eight should be sufficient. These should then be geographically distributed across the city. They could even offer varying focus: education, neighborhood and transportation concerns, environmental issues, economic development, etc. Then, organizations that share these concerns could be invited to submit proposed questions or designate panelists. Currently, just about any group with the postage to mail out an invitation is legitimized to demand the presence of candidates. That’s nuts!

Candidates find themselves repeating their same robotic pitches, which their opponents have heard a dozen times. All spontaneity is lost and actual debate rarely ensues. It is simply too dangerous to risk a changed position, or to evidence that your opinion may actually be evolving, because that will predictably unleash charges of flip-flopping. It is much easier to just freeze your answers in February and keep repeating those same talking points, verbatim, right through to May. Occasionally, a question from the audience will come from far enough out in left field that you would observe candidates straining to provide an answer.

My favorite unscripted response of the campaign came from James Mejia at the so-called “Sustainability” forum. He always mentioned growing up in a family with thirteen brothers and sisters. Towards the end of an otherwise uneventful evening, the candidates were asked whether they felt humanity was overpopulating planet Earth? One after another, each answered, yes. Nearly at the end of the line, Mejia responded by saying, “I can’t speak for my parents…” and then, his yes was lost in a roar of laughter. There weren’t nearly enough of these moments during the campaign.

Miller Hudson, a former Qwest manager, state representative, labor association executive and political consultant, also was a candidate for mayor of Denver a couple decades ago.