Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Importance of Debates in the Gubernatorial Contest

Debates have historically proven to be conclusive in Chicago political history. It so happens that the City Club has played an important role in sponsoring debates which have changed the shape of public affairs. When I became president of the City Club, the city was ruled so heavily by Richard J. Daley that debates were not regarded with importance. For one thing, in his later years, Daley himself never allowed himself to debate—relying on set speeches or, at the most, appearances where he was held inviolate from opponents’ questioning. The League of Women Voters had debates but the good ladies were so dedicated to the snuffing out of any spontaneity that they only produced the obligatory newspaper coverage which didn’t indicate what candidate won or lost.

When the City Club came back to life in 1974, we resurrected the old ideas of debates. Mayor Jane Byrne, States Attorney Richard M. Daley and a congressman not known to the white community, Harold Washington, debated and lo! Washington emerged as the winner. Chicago saw in him an articulate, witty and powerfully magnetic figure with a majestic rolling bass voice. Other debates soon followed. Probably the most powerful debate from a Republican point of view was a City Club-sponsored debate on WTTW-TV with two Senatorial aspirants: Loleta Didricksen, the state comptroller and a little known state senator, Peter Fitzgerald. The winner would face Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Didricksen was heavily favored to win the nomination. An attractive and articulate pro-choicer, she had been a state representative and a cabinet member under Gov. George Ryan. Ryan himself was heavily in her corner as was the country club crowd, the Thompson-Edgar group that dominated the then GOP. Since Braun was a fiery exponent of feminism, the smart money—mushy moderate money, anyhow—said that only another woman who was pro-choice could beat her. Of course the media followed suit: it just made sense to take abortion and conservative social issues off the table: how many times have we heard that before, including this year?

The host and moderator was John Callaway for whom I’ve always had a great regard. A seasoned newsman, Callaway didn’t need briefing on what the issues would be anymore than he needed primping as to hair style (it was simple with the hair: he had very little). When the debate started, Didricksen’s husband, a particularly annoying fellow, sat behind the debating stand where his face loomed up in the background during the presentations. For some reason, he determined to alternately grin and frown, lifting his eyebrows and jerk convulsively throughout, not unlike the strange people who gawk at the Today show and hold up signs proclaiming “Hi, Aunt Minnie!” Neither Loleta nor Peter could see what was going on in the background—but Callaway could, facing the antics. Nor could anyone in the studio who saw the contortions fathom for what purpose the hi-jinks were being carried on.

But soon after the debate began, it really didn’t matter. Both candidates were asked by Callaway about abortion and both took predictably contrary positions, Didricksen supporting “reproductive rights” and Fitzgerald the pro-life case. Then Callaway asked them about pornography—a question that everyone expected would be answered by both with a firm denunciation. But Didricksen stunned the crowd by inexpertly taking the side of the most extreme First Amendment ideologues who admit of little or no control over the internet and its purveying on children, sounding for all the world like a crusader for the ACLU. Fitzgerald listened attentively and when the question came to him, connected expertly and hit the ball out of the park. A lawyer-legislator and sensitive to nuance, he defended the right of parents to be concerned that their children not be victimized. When Didricksen sought to respond, she did so with laughter (amplified by her husband’s doubling up with mirth in the backaground) which evidently got Callaway’s ire up. He asked her chillingly what she saw as so funny about the proposition.

She admitted that it was nothing and her mirth faded. Immediately her husband’s antics evaporated as well. And from that second on, the audience—even the generally liberal, sophisticated WTTW-City Club audience—appeared to lose sympathy with her. Just as the Kennedy-Nixon debate tripped the balance, the City Club-WTTW set Didricksen on the road to decline. Social conservatives saw that she was beatable, that Fitzgerald really was a guy you could get excited about.

That’s the importance of debates. Under the City Club presidency of Jay Doherty the Club has intensified the debate schedule with a partnership frequently with WTTW. Under Jay and Paul Green, there are going to be lieutenant governor debates as well, a great idea. All of us remember the City Club debate with the Democratic candidates for the U. S. Senate. It centered around the dismal performance of Blair Hull, running for the Senate who had paved the way with an obscene amount of money and the near-dismal showing of Dan Hynes, regarded as the regular Democrats’ young princeling along with the spectacular charisma of Barack Obama (who had lost a race for the House to Bobby Rush on the grounds that he was too elitist for average African Americans: an idea that evaporated the night of the debate).

It is a matter of record that on the Republican side of the Senate debate, we had great difficulty in getting Jack Ryan to show up. He purposely missed a number of debates, secure that he was ahead on points anyhow (and perhaps, as it proved, because he didn’t want to open himself to undue scrutiny). In any event, the free market rough and tumble of politics and aggressive probing journalism soon disqualified him.

Now we’re at another debate time. The establishment person the “smart money” is on, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, is determined to be scarce and has not accepted the challenge. If she is allowed to get away with it without much criticism, she will have scored an impressive win psychologically which could start the ball rolling to carry her across the finish line. She’s may well be counting on the great burden and onerous responsibility of her high custodial office—or another debate that same day which will not be extensively covered—to win a reprieve. I can only say that if she gets a pass without rebuff, the gubernatorial campaign may well take a direction that I explained yesterday. Granted., debates being the uncertain things they are, she may show up and hit a home run—to which I would grudgingly say hooray. She’s got a winning personality and a quick mind to carry the day. For some reason Ron Gidwitz is turning up missing thus far as well—although what’s in it for him to be absent I cannot imagine. Assuredly, he could show up and slug a high fly out to Waveland avenue. Why wouldn’t he want to do this? Dunno.

Thus I ask you for your suggestions on what to do. One cannot dragoon the purported leading candidate to show up. But the Republican electorate and the voters generally will be short-changed if the total representation is not on hand on January 25, noon at Maggiano’s. Your suggestions?


  1. My suggestion – typos & grammatical errors, as always, included – came after your l/10 post. Surely if the Oberweis and Brady campaigns are confident enough to enter a statewide primary, they must believe that, at least united, they could get enough GOP supporters to march from Maggiano's to the storefront broadcast outlets nearby to make statements about the absence of Gidwitz and Topinka from the event. Don't Oberweis and Brady have enough supporters for a GOP debate parade; or is it a question of style and preference in political tactics?

  2. It is quite shocking to me, as a Gidwitz supporter, that he has not responded to the debate. He has a lot of really good ideas, but has not expressed them to people who don't really pay attention. If he were to skip this, you can count his days numbered, and this Gidwitz supporter in the pocket of... oh... maybe... Oberwei$? Who knows at this point? God I hope not, but he seems to have quality ideas, along with Brady. Unfortunately the smart money pick has no ideas and thinks she should be governor because she can win. Hey, I could win a 100 yard dash against a sumo wrestler, but should I race just to win???...