Annapolis Mayor Al Hopkins showed up at a debate at St. John's College a week ago just long enough to read a brief statement about his childhood in Ward 1, then left. "If you have any questions you want me to answer," he told the crowd, "I welcome you to my home. I welcome you to my office. I will meet with any of you one on one." Out the door he went, leaving challengers Dennis Callahan and Larry Vincent to levy their sometimes exaggerated criticisms at his empty chair.
Mr. Hopkins' campaign managers explained that he had accepted an invitation to another event before the debate was scheduled. Perhaps so; scheduling conflicts do occur. But it's no secret that the mayor's advisers prefer to keep him out of public forums as much as possible. He is not a good public speaker and is prone to embarrassing gaffes, so their strategy is understandable.
Nonetheless, he is the incumbent mayor, and it is his record that is being challenged. The issue in this election, as in any election, is whether the person who currently holds the office deserves to keep it. If Mr. Hopkins wants to continue as mayor, he has an obligation to defend his record -- not just privately, but in public forums.
Some people have become cynical about debates, saying they are boring, predictable and reveal little about the candidates. We disagree. While some debates are more exciting than others, they remain a useful tool for pressing candidates on their positions; for getting a handle on what they know and believe; for gauging their style; for conveying a sense of who they are as people.
Certainly the debate Mr. Hopkins missed helped define the candidates: Mr. Callahan, running as an independent, was glib and confident, causing a stir, as always, with an announcement (somewhat overstated, it turned out) that he was pulling strings with political higher-ups to save Annapolis from getting an expanded county jail. Mr. Vincent, the Republican candidate, was quieter, with a self-deprecating humor and clear stands on most issues. Mr. Hopkins, the Democrat, fared the worst -- because he wasn't there.
Candidates for public office need not be silver-tongued orators. But voters do expect them -- especially incumbents -- to stand up in public and explain why they deserve to be elected.