Here’s a quick write-up of my first impressions of tonight’s candidate forum. I will post something much more detailed and somewhat less opinionated later. Be patient: It was a long event so it might take me a while. The event was recorded for Coral Gables TV so if you have cable, or can figure out how to navigate their web page, you can see the whole thing for yourself.
Coral Gables Commission races attract high-quality candidates. It gives you a degree of faith in democracy, one that participation in national politics can so easily leach away.
The Structure of the Event
Thanks in large part to the Chamber keeping the use of the clickers to a minimum, the Forum went off significantly better than I had feared: it wasn’t a circus. Parts of it were even informative despite the very short time-limits for candidate statements.
The focus on “decorum” and the prohibition of having candidates address each other directly turned out not to be a problem in the two Commission races where there is no incumbent.
Unfortunately, this ground rule did harm the discussion in the Mayor’s part of the program, as a significant aspect of the Mayoralty race is that it is a referendum on Mayor James Cason‘s tenure – and arguably that of Commissioner Ralph Cabrera too. As applied, the rule seemed like an effort to protect the Mayor from Cabrera’s criticism, and the moderator’s genial but yet slightly barbed banter with Commissioner Cabrera about his tendency to talk a lot (e.g “you just beat the over/under” for when he might go over time) might have raised an issue of partiality in the eyes of a suspicious watcher. Then again, for all I know, maybe they are all drinking buddies. I am not part of the Chamber and wouldn’t know.
I was most interested in the first event, the Group 3 race, because I had to miss the previous debate. I came into the room thinking that the candidates I most wanted to see were Mary Martin Young and Patricia A. Keon, whom the conventional wisdom sees as the front-runners. I was also curious about P.J. Mitchell, who I thought wrote one of the better candidate statements. Of these, I was maybe leaning a tiny bit towards Patricia Keon, just based on her c.v. and what other people had said to me about her, but I was mostly undecided. And, to be honest, I just hadn’t focused on Norman Anthony Newell at all.
Ms. Keon, to my surprise, was just not impressive. Fresh off the Herald’s endorsement, she was overly cautious and unspecific and just plain ducked some questions. Maybe this was a calculated caution strategy to preserve a lead, but it came off as either unwilling to commit, or just uncertain. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t vote for her, but it didn’t make the sale. Ms. Young also ducked and weaved, plus managed to be at times sound-bite grating and often needlessly patting herself on the back for her achievements both in scripted and unscripted moments. It was so bad that I won’t vote for her. Mr. Mitchell was also a bit of a disappointment: he was (over?) folksy, but for most of the event struck a one-note candidacy: pensionspensionspensionspensionspensions. There is more to being a Commissioner than just that one issue, especially as most if not all of the candidates seem in fairly broad agreement about it. Jackson Rip Holmes is not a serious candidate in either sense of the word “serious”.
In contrast, Mr. Newell was thoughtful and substantive (and seemed justifiably to chafe at the format). He didn’t duck the questions. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but he made the case that the Commission needs some new blood and he, the youngest candidate in the race, might be the person to provide it.
Bottom line: I left very impressed by Mr. Newell. I don’t know if he has a chance in this race, but even if he doesn’t win, maybe he ought to keep running until he does.
On the whole there were not that many differences from the Coral Gables Commission Candidates’ Forum (Group II) meeting a couple of weeks ago. I thought Marlin Holland Ebbert did considerably better than the first time; I still thought Ross Hancock had the best policies (and he’s endorsed by the Sierra Club!), but he came off as a bit more pugnacious than last time which probably won’t help him with the average voter. He had the best and most detailed answer to the trolley question. Vicente Carlos Lago was more subdued than he had been. I had some trouble with his reply to the question about historic preservation which, although saying it matters, also seemed suggest an appetite for development that plays into the ‘special interest candidate supported by developers’ story that the other two candidates were selling with various degrees of gentleness. Mr. Lago also was the only candidate who ducked the hard part of the question about whether the Commission was right to site the Trolley garage in the Grove over the objections of local residents. (The other two said that at least we could extend the service to them, which I think is right.) Off the dais Mr. Lago is about as friendly and charming as a person can get, and I think he’ll be a great neighbor, Commissioner or not. But I don’t think what the Gables needs right now is a development boom (although I am persuaded it needs a downtown makeover of some sort), so that made me a bit nervous about adding another pro-developer vote to the Commission.
Bottom line: Still leaning pretty strongly Hancock, but feeling OK about all the candidates as individuals (the issue of their effect on the overall makeup of the Commission is something I’m only starting to think about).
Again, the substance of this debate was largely a replay of last week’s debate. I was a bit shocked that incumbent Mayor Jim Cason again quoted Commissioner Ralph Cabrera out of context in order to try to make it look like he was ignoring the pensions crisis when in context the remark Cason seized on clearly meant the exact opposite. This is really a cheap shot. It has to make you wonder.
On the other hand, I was also surprised that Cabrera is still flogging the crime issue to the point that his campaign workers were handing out copies of my post Is Crime Up or Down in Coral Gables? Yes. (which would have been fine if they had included the Creative Commons copyright information) since that blog post suggests Cason’s numbers were on the whole better than Cabrera’s. I guess the crime issue polls well. I’d feel better about it if Cabrera had something more specific to say other than ‘we should give the police the tools they need’. What tools those are, he does not say.
Bottom line: Still undecided. Ouch.