Outtakes From A Candidate-Forum Junkie

Not long ago Pam Iorio jokingly accused me of “stalking” because she kept seeing me at all these mayoral candidate forums. Bob Buckhorn, in turn, wondered if my ubiquity meant I was now a candidate myself.

No, the body politic will be spared that.

Such light-hearted observations, however, are a likely sign that you’ve been seeing more than your share of these things. It means they’re starting to play like a continuous loop.

As with pornography, you know it when you see it. Manifest signs that you may be a candidate-forum junkie:

*You already know, for example, that when Iorio talks about her vision for downtown, there will inevitably follow countless ways to integrate “catalyst” into her remarks. Always looming is the observation that Tampa is “the only city that puts a parking lot on its river.” Generally speaking, there will be a lot of generalizations. A lot of them impassioned.*You steel yourself for the Buckhorn reminder that he has been getting up “every morning for the past 16 years trying to make this a better place.” You’re tired, frankly, of feeling like an ingrate for not fully appreciating that kind of single-minded dedication over these last 5,800 days. You know “monument” building, a certain CIT vote, “platitudes over potholes” and “trains running on time” will eventually surface. As will a flattering comparison to Rudy Giuliani. When he references residential needs, you know what’s coming: “Eight hundred people live in downtown Tampa, and 400 of them are in jail.” It’s still a solid laugh line.

*You’re prepared for your Miranda rites. That’s when the 64-year-old City Council chairman waxes wistful. You know it’s coming, and it won’t be just drive-by nostalgia. Some of the references will evoke smiles and nods. Others will prompt a quizzical reaction because the reverie rendered the question incidental. Miranda will remind you, more than once, that he is stingy with money — his and yours.

*You expect Frank Sanchez to work in “growing the economy.” Ironically, you’re continuously amazed that he doesn’t do it more frequently and more fervently. It’s his trump card — from better jobs to paved potholes. You also know Sanchez will make a pointedly fervid and direct commitment to somebody about something. At some point, he’ll turn a potential home run of an answer into a scratch hit.

*You’re ready for the square-peg, “fit, fun, free and functional” candidacy of Don Ardell. His asides, you know, will be variations on an iconoclastic theme. He’ll remind you, directly and indirectly, that it would take a miracle for him to be mayor. In what would otherwise be political heresy, he’ll likely “pass” on a question at some point in the interests of saving time and limiting redundancy. Somewhere in the forum, however, Ardell will reveal a seriously Libertarian side that is out of synch with what real cities with real challenges really need.

*You hope write-in candidate Neil Cosentino will be a no-show. When he isn’t, anticipate references to the Convention Center and the German-American Club, no matter the question.

Finally, you start to compile a mental memo. Maybe it has merit; maybe it’s just good therapy. Maybe it’s something to do when Cosentino is droning on. But after a recent mayoral forum on the arts at Tampa Theater, sound bites never seemed so good. It was easy to see how this democratic staple just might share a short list with news, laws and sausage: stuff you might not want to see in process. At least not this often.

With that bias in mind, these sausage-inspired thoughts and recommendations:

*Six — or more — is an unwieldy number at a candidate forum. But sometimes democracy is unwieldy.

*Candidate quality notwithstanding, forums are as good as their moderators. Their preparation includes being armed with a number of relevant queries plus clear instructions for candidates, timekeepers and audience members.

*Suggestion: Moderators should consider asking a given question to a pair of candidates. One responds; the other, in effect, rebuts. It saves time and tedium. (When everyone answers the same question, even the clueless can cobble together a respectable answer.)

*Sure, there’s a luck-of-the-draw element here, but it’s not bad preparation for the City Hall hot seat. The mayor never knows what the next phone ring will bring. For candidates who want a piece of questions not asked them, they will be encouraged to work it into their concluding remarks instead of soaring, all-things-to-all-people, boilerplate rhetoric. Conversely, they can remain conspicuously silent on questions they would prefer to duck.

*Moderators must discourage — no, ban — applause after each candidate answers. It should be obvious why.

*If questions are solicited from the audience, moderators should preface them with this admonition: If you haven’t begun to formulate a question within 30 seconds, expect the hook. You’re not a candidate; we already have enough of those.

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