Questions are Key in Debate

Published Friday, March 28, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

I was there when Jim Torrey last debated at City Club, against Vicki Walker for state senate in 2006. I was there when City Club reinvented its debate format to allow questions from the audience. I was there when City Club worried when debate answers began showing up in political attack ads. I wasn’t there when Lincoln and Douglas debated, but none of us were.

Mayoral candidate Jim Torrey has objected to the format City Club has proposed for a debate on Friday, May 2. He doesn’t want unfiltered questions from the audience because he thinks “gotcha” questions don’t educate the public. He’d rather have a series of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates between himself and incumbent Kitty Piercy, each asking the other questions.

I agree with Torrey that clever questions for which there is no good answer don’t flatter anyone. But there were no “gotcha” questions in City Club’s Torrey-Walker debate in 2006. (I’ve listened to the tape.) The topics were what you’d expect: Measure 37, Death with Dignity, abortion, the Iraq war. No “boxers or briefs.” The questions did not come unfiltered — the debate was moderated by then KEZI anchor Rick Dancer.

City Club prides itself in the quality of their questions. Most programs include a guest chosen in advance to ask the first question. It’s a coveted invitation — the intellectual equivalent of throwing out the first pitch.

No, what hurt Torrey in 2006 was not the questions, but the answers. And not the substance of the answers, but the length of them. Answers to audience questions were limited to 30 seconds, so any nuance or moderation was squeezed out. What’s worse, those oversimplified answers fit neatly into television ads crafted by his opponent. What was said at the Hilton that day didn’t stay at the Hilton.

City Club considered banning photography of meetings after that campaign, but the club decided to stick with the “open” part of its mission statement: “To build community vision through open inquiry.” The debate format proposed for May 2 is unchanged from the one used in 2006.

This election offers Eugene voters a rare opportunity to learn about the governance of their city. Who better to discuss what works and what doesn’t in city hall than the mayor of Eugene for the past three years and the man who had that position for the eight years before that? Campaigning and governing require vastly different skill sets, but these two have done both.

We could learn a lot from their answers, but 30 seconds won’t suffice. Everybody talks about the divisiveness in politics nowadays, but overlooked is the divisive mathematics of debate planning. City Club starts with 75 minutes, because that’s what KLCC has provided and that’s about all the modern attention span can accommodate. Divide the time provided by the number of topics, then divide that by the number of candidates. That’s how you get to sound-bite-length answers. Lincoln and Douglas didn’t have to fit their debates into a time slot.

I see only two solutions. Either limit the number of topics addressed or limit the number of candidates invited. The League of Women Voters’ charter requires that all candidates be treated equally, but that’s just silly. Nick Urhausen and Jim Ray, the other two candidates for mayor, should be respected and appreciated for their willingness to run, but they are not equals with Piercy and Torrey in the race for mayor. They haven’t been there.

A debate that invites all comers often ceases to be a debate so much as a pageant.

In the end, City Club and League of Women Voters exist for different reasons. League of Women Voters want to promote democracy by educating the public. City Club wants to propel democracy, by energizing that public. The League’s mission is focused on elections and they do it mightily. City Club widens its view to include governance, commerce and culture. This debate could unite electioneering with governance.

City Club should hear what a mayor in Eugene can, did, should, and might do from the two candidates who know best, Torrey and Piercy. The first questions can be asked by Urhausen and Ray.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) helped organize previous City Club debates, “Mayor Search” pageants at Saturday Market, and who knows what else. You can track his escapades at right here.