By now, most engaged voters know the names in the race for Dane County executive. You probably know many of their positions on the issues and the backgrounds, the endorsements and the inside jokes. There have now been at least a half dozen forums featuring at least a portion of the field and most conceivable questions have been asked.During Thursday night's debate at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Madison's west side, some of the questions from the crowd betrayed the voters' insecurities and worries.
That's a side of these events that's not often reported -- the direction, tone and choice of the questions say just as much about the interrogators as the answers do the interrogated. The selection bias is important to acknowledge.
Question: Excuse me, can each candidate stand up please as they're introducing themselves?
Lesson: Looks still matter, even in a primary debate for the executive in this Midwestern state's second largest county. This question was shouted from the audience during opening remarks by an attendee apparently looking to match faces with policy agendas. And speaking of that, let's just address the big red elephant in the room: Joe Wineke was more flushed than Brother Ali after a day in the sun. It was a little warm in the room and he mentioned that he had a cold.
As for the other candidates: Zach Brandon looks a bit like Paul Rudd's less-successful brother. Joe Parisi resembles every inch a college history professor, down to the thin frame, gray streaked hair and glasses. Nothing jumped out about Eileen Bruskewitz or Scott McDonell, and really, they're the ones that seemed to make the least headway with the audience as the debate wore on.
Question: Much of the campaign has focused on the upcoming relationship with Scott Walker. How will you bridge that gap?
Lesson: Everyone in the room seemed a little bit scared of Scott Walker. It was almost as if -- to the aging west side crowd in attendance -- Walker, like a conservative goaltender in a hockey game against Dane County, is capable of stretching in any direction to block all spending projects. Each candidate was careful to distance him or herself from Walker politically, though the audience reacted best to those who resigned themselves to the assumed impending cuts, like Parisi and Bruskewitz.
Here's a story that helps illustrate the general feeling about Walker hanging over the room. Midway through his response to a question about protecting Dane County's mental health services, McDonell made a remark about how important the county's human services budget is. The wife in an elderly couple behind me turned to her husband and said in a low tone, "He better be glad Scott Walker's not in the room, or he'd cut it on the spot."
Question: What were some of Kathleen Falk's biggest successes and failures as County Executive?
Lesson: It's pretty clear that the most important thing about Kathleen Falk to this race is not her accomplishments, not her endorsement (which she's refused to give, anyway), nor her failures, but her name recognition. That's why this question was worded like it was. Its main objective was not to uncover any nuances in the candidates' policies, but rather to give each person a platform to clarify exactly how close to Falk they've been during her tenure and declare that they would be Falk 2.0, Falk with a few small changes.
The whole thing was somewhat reminiscent of the way President Obama used Bill Clinton after the primaries were over in 2008. Of course Obama wanted to be associated with the economic growth and the relative peacefulness of the late nineties but, well, there were a few things he'd do differently. Each candidate praised Falk to some degree, but offered a shortcoming that they would address if elected. Wineke seemed to speak for the five when he said he would grade Falk a B+ for her time as County Exec. Only Bruskewitz mentioned the 911 controversy.
Question: Everybody makes mistakes. All of you have been legislators, public policy makers, etc. Tell us about a mistake you made and how you came to terms with it.
Question: Describe one skill that you believe will make you an effective county executive.
Lesson: The public is much nicer than the press. The first of those two was a question posed by the moderators; the second came from a member of the audience. There was surprisingly little negative sentiment in the room, and the candidates were happy for it. Several mentioned how great the crowd was. But surprisingly, several of the candidates, Bruskewitz especially, struggled in identifying a single mistake that they could use as an example.
The second of these questions came last, and was an appropriate segue into each candidate's closing remarks. And from the audience's uniformly polite applause after each speech, one thing was clear: At this point in the race, there might not be a single question out there that will provide the perfect answer addressing the volatile equation of Dane County's growth and the Walker administration's tight fist.