Sound-bite mayoral debates cheat voters


IN THE very first moment of Tuesday night's televised mayoral debate, the clock ran out on the city of Baltimore.

You were expecting, maybe, serious in-depth analysis of the city's troubles? The candidates were informed they would have 60 seconds to answer some questions, and 45 seconds to answer other questions, and 30 seconds for others.

You limit Lawrence A. Bell III to 30 seconds, he's still navigating his way through his Pavlovian response, "I'm proud that as president of the Baltimore City Council..." when the clock runs out.

What was the rush? Did somebody have to catch a bus? It's politics as Supermarket Sweepstakes: How much can you get in in 60 seconds? Here's a question: Will we get more than a minute to make up our minds when we walk into the voting booth next week?

Just because the mayoral debates have been held on television, does that mean an entire community has to be held hostage to the instincts of sound-bite journalism? We tune in as an electorate, not an audience. There is a distinction. This is a piece of community business, not an entertainment. It's supposed to be a study of character and ideas, not a quick-response "Jeopardy" competition.

When Carl Stokes challenged Martin O'Malley about sending his kids out to Baltimore County to attend Catholic school, and O'Malley replied with a quick line about his wife's carpooling convenience, that's an opening anecdote. It's not a policy statement. It should have opened a discussion about countless parents who are afraid to send their kids to the public schools, and how this fuels the continuing exodus to the suburbs -- and who might have a serious idea to change this.

When Bell was asked about outrageous campaign tactics -- his supporters shouting down opponents and printing 3,000 copies of hate literature -- he smiled lamely, muttered, "We've never elected a perfect mayor" -- and when the buzzer sounded seconds later, he'd escaped the uncomfortable moment. But we're left wondering: Is this the modus operandi of a man who would lead a city?

When O'Malley was asked about giving Daki Napata $1,000, it barely gave him time to say how he'd been snookered by a man playing both sides of the fence. And it gave him no time to say, "You're actually asking me about Napata, the guy working for Bell? He wasn't printing 3,000 copies of racist material for me." And then we could have had a real airing-out about racial tensions, instead of a buzzer going off.

When Stokes was asked about cleaning up neighborhoods, he responded with a plan to hand out brooms. That's an interesting symbolic gesture, but Stokes has compelling ideas about urgent, intensive help to neighborhoods on the edge of trouble -- impossible to detail in 60 seconds.

Sixty seconds? You give political candidates for the city's most important job 60 seconds to answer a question, they're still clearing their throats when their time is expiring.

Asked to name the city departments with the biggest problems, two of the candidates took a hike, and escaped because the clock let them. "They can all do better," Bell said. Stokes was more specific, but left out the one that's as obvious as any vacant, decayed, eyesore house bringing ruination to countless neighborhoods: the housing department.

O'Malley talked about housing's "$26 million no-bid scandal." He and Bell were strident City Council voices standing up to Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III at the time. Now, in an election season, Bell loses his voice. But the housing problem troubles the city, and Henson remains in office.

And, as any hope for serious public discussion about housing slipped away, the clock buzzed at the 60-second mark.

Sixty seconds? The candidates were laughably given 30 seconds for their final question: What's their "vision" for the city? O'Malley, barely restraining a laugh, said, "I'm gonna cram as much vision into 30 seconds as I can." Seconds later, the buzzer sounded. The others fared no better in such short time.

So we will go to the polls next Tuesday in a state of wonder: Does someone have a workable plan for the city's vacant and rotting housing stock -- or just 60 seconds worth of telegenic hand-wringing? Can someone articulate the specifics of a school reform idea -- or just give us familiar, cloying mantras about "the children"? Has anyone thought through the notion of getting drug dealers off of street corners -- or does the phrase "zero tolerance" count as a thesis that everyone understands?

We cheat ourselves with these debates. We put together the most important candidates for the most vital job in town, and we fail to let them explain what they would do if they get the job.

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