This is the third election season I’ve been a panelist for debates on our local Public Television station. I prepare by spending a few hours asking other journalists and people who follow the Minnesota legislature what issues they think are important and what questions they would ask. I try to frame a question in a way that will not only make the candidates show what they know and think about an issue, but also make them show how much they know about the people they want to represent.
Candidates deflect, avoid or misinterpret debate questions all the time. So, from a journalist’s perspective, debates will be a disappointment if you expect wide-ranging responses that explore the various angles you imagined in your question.
For example, before one debate a few years ago, I had a some conversations with business people in the area. All of them said that the cost of health insurance was going up fast, and the insurance products they could afford had such high deductibles that they weren’t much use to their employees unless they got real sick.
So I decided to frame a health care question in economic terms. It went like this:
“If the state were to assume some of the health insurance costs of Minnesota workers, what impact would that have on the business climate in the state?”
I expected the answers would range from reducing the cost of doing business and improving the business climate (good things) to concern over how the state would pay for the insurance. However, all of the candidates saw the question as an opportunity to give their standard response to the “health care question”. I was sorry they didn’t answer my question, but it wasn’t a waste because at least viewers and listeners heard their ideas about health care reform.
Huh? You Gotta Know The Territory!
Some journalists only ask questions they already know the answers to. However, even if you think you know the answer, some candidate responses are so vague or evasive I think they are trying to disguise their ignorance. But that's not necessarily true. They may be using language people in their district understand that I don't because I don't know the territory well enough. For years candidates have used coded rhetoric for talking about hot button issues like taxes, race and abortion.
A Grand Stand
The first debate I ever worked featured Rudy Perpich and Warren Spannus. They were going against each other in the DFL primary for Governor. I think it was 1982. Spannus was the DFL's endorsed candidate. So Rudy was bucking his Party's will. During his closing remarks in this debate Rudy picks up his tax return and slaps it down on the podium and that's becomes the story of this debate. I'm sure the tremendous downturn in mining was one of the big issues of the day. But what was he saying with his gesture? That he's got nothing to hide? That he's not corrupt? Did this grand stand affect the outcome? I don't remember, but he won the primary and the next two general elections to become the longest-serving Governor in MN history.
Politics in KAXE's broadcast range: There are all or part of at least seven Senate Districts in the KAXE listening – districts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 12. Each District sends one Senator and two Representatives to St. Paul . That’s up to 21 legislators in all from our area. This year there are no Senate races. So we will elect Representatives to fill about 14 seats in the House.