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MPT debate shows why Brown avoids television

Lieutenant governor comes up TV loser again

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

9:19 PM EDT, June 2, 2014

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Last week, I thought Lt. Governor Anthony Brown was the loser among Democratic candidates for not showing up at WBFF’s TV debate.

And he was. But he was an even bigger loser Monday in showing up for the debate on Maryland Public Television. No wonder he doesn’t want to do these TV debates. It’s not just incumbency; he’s terrible on television.

His answers are just this side of bureaucratic doublespeak – exactly the rhetoric of Washington and Annapolis unaccountability that makes some voters want to scream. And he regularly has an expression on his face when he looks into the camera that I have not seen on a veteran politician since George W. Bush.

"Deer in the headlights" is the term often used to describe it, but the phrase has been overused to the point where it has lost much of its meaning. But it is defined here, just as it was with Bush, by Brown's eyebrows shooting up toward each other to form an inverted “V” and his eyes widening as he looks into the camera. And the nervousness suggested by that facial expression is accentuated by jerky arm movements and sudden swings of the head from side to side.

In an hour-long format, he is almost painful to watch. Scratch almost.

And the staging of this debate by the League of Women Voters and MPT was absolutely deadly for him, because each time a candidate was given a question, he or she would get up from a stool, walk toward the audience, look into the camera and speak.

A good media coach might have compensated by telling Brown to walk right up to the edge of the studio audience, make eye contact with and speak one on one to the person who asked the question. Then, the camera would be looking upon that visual exchange between candidate and audience member, rather than directly into Brown’s eyes.

But the words were worse than the visuals.

The debate format was messy with moderator Jeff Salkin changing instructions and even rules for the candidates as it went along. State Delegate Heather Mizeur expressed her frustration when the end of her closing statement, which had already been cut to just 60 seconds, was clipped by Salkin.

Salkin’s best moment came when he used what he described as one of his only chances to ask a question of his own, to query Brown about a Baltimore Sun editorial questioning Brown’s exact role in the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland.

Quoting the Sun, Salkin said voters “still haven’t got a satisfactory answer” as to whether Brown was a “failed manager,” or talk of him being in charge was merely “political puffery.”

Brown’s answer when you cut through all the bureaucrat-speak was that he was indeed in charge of one committee overseeing the rollout, but it wasn’t the right committee, the one that actually had the information about how things were going.  

So, yes he was in charge, but not really responsible for the debacle, because he wasn’t on the right committee.

Incredible. It would be laughable if hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars had not been squandered and so many state residents had not suffered.

Attorney General Douglas Gansler had his most consistent TV outing to date. His best moment came when Salkin asked, “If I could focus in on your corporate tax proposal… Of all the taxes that are out there, why is that one your focus?”

“It’s not my focus,” he said. “The lieutenant governor made it my focus with three mailings and a television [attack] ad.”

As unnecessary as it should be, it was a nice reminder to the moderator and other members of the press not to let their perceptions of the candidates be shaped by media ads -- especially attack ads.