The maestro of municipal debates
This is a plug for the debate maestro and his ensemble.
Municipal elections, like the ones coming to your town in four weeks, neither receive nor deliver much hoopla. Zero-to-no TV commercials. Candidate flyers that begin and end with how hard the person will work, if (re-)elected; not much listed in the way of specific accomplishments, although "She kept the town running on budget" would be no small feat to crow about.
So, whom are you going to vote for on Tuesday, Nov. 5, between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.? Or by absentee ballot? If you're unaffiliated, or are party-registered but openminded, how do you assess the candidates without unreasonable effort and time? Registered Democrats, Republicans and Greens are expected to vote the party line, of course. But they don't call it a secret ballot for nothing. You and your best judgment are alone with your Sharpie at that little folding table in the gym.
One way would be to fall back upon the inclination to vote for people you recognize, which is not the worst way to choose in local elections. Chances are that if you recognize a person you may know something about them and whether the mental associations are favorable. A good neighbor, a reliable volunteer, a person who is a whiz with numbers — those people might deserve the chance to get the office they've stepped up to run for.
A better way to get a handle on those running for the top municipal offices, however, would be to watch the candidates for mayor or first selectman debate on www.theday.com.
The principal person to thank for these productions is the debate maestro, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, who has no idea I am writing this. It's a compliment to say that Paul is an old-fashioned newsman, in the sense that he deeply believes in the responsibility of a local news organization to give voters the sight and sound of candidates speaking and conveying — often in their demeanor as much as their words — how they will lead.
Of all the reporting, investigating, featuring and photographing that news organizations do, the coverage of a town election is probably the least profitable in a business sense because it is utterly site specific. Only the voters in a certain town have a compelling interest. Peter Huoppi or Tim Cook or another videographer records the debate. Someone, usually Paul, moderates, which requires hours of preparation besides the set-up and 60-minute debate itself. Coordinating a debate always takes more time than it seems it should; it involves calling all candidates, negotiating a workable time, getting the high school or town hall set up, enlisting the invaluable help of the League of Women Voters or other nonpartisan volunteers, publishing a custom advertisement for each debate.
Measured by the number of hits on theday.com, no one debate is apt to be among the top five items viewed in a given cycle. What makes stories or videos go viral is that they hold something for everyone. Unless you're a debate aficionado, there is nothing for you in, say, the Montville debate, if you live in Old Lyme. We accept that.
Paul, Peter, Tim, the reporters who cover the debates and the other newsroom staff who publish and produce the results are doing it for your town because democracy starts at town hall — if townspeople register to vote and show up on Election Day. We take it personally when they do and when they don't, because Paul puts an awful lot into it.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board (and worked on Election Nights for 21 years, so she knows).
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