A few years ago, one of the Hopkins City Council candidates complained to me after a candidate forum that the League of Women Voters event was too tame. The questions didn’t really allow the candidates to differentiate themselves, the candidate said, and the Q&A format didn’t allow them to press one another on key points as they would’ve been able to in an actual debate.
I was thinking of the candidate’s comments as a moderator ticked off the rules of Tuesday’s Hopkins School Board candidate forum. The league would not use any questions that were unclear, hostile or “of a personal nature,” she said.
The rules make an admirable attempt to ensure the civility that is so often lacking in public discourse these days. But I can’t help but wondering—like the City Council candidate—if they don’t keep political debate from coming to full bloom.
My beef is primarily with the third rule. Candidates obviously can’t answer questions that aren’t clear, and allowing hostile questions could prompt supporters to waste precious questions on what amount to negative attack ads.
But personal questions are something altogether different. A candidate’s background and unique experiences can have as much bearing on how he or she approaches the job as the candidate’s stated views on the issues.
This year’s Hopkins mayoral race makes this especially clear. Anthony Bostic was convicted of illegally carrying a BB gun in public in 2003 and again in 2006. He then received two drunken driving convictions in 2007 and October 2012. He has a probation violation hearing scheduled for Oct. 1.
This is not to say the convictions—all misdemeanors—should automatically rule out Bostic. The candidate said he’s had an awakening and is running to ensure people from all walks of life can be heard.
“Mistakes are not what define a man or woman,” he said in a compelling interview. “It’s how they recover.”
But the beauty of the forums is that they allow voters to vet the candidates in person and decide for themselves what is salient and what is not. Prohibiting personal questions only undercuts this mission. The rule curtains off a key part of the candidate’s political identity and says, “Keep on moving. Nothing to see here.”
The reality is that the candidate forums already allow personal questions—so long as they fall within acceptable, unwritten parameters. At Tuesday’s School Board forum, the very first question asked candidates about their “involvement in the community” and whether they have children attending Hopkins schools.
I can’t say I agree completely with the candidate I spoke with at that forum a couple years ago. The League of Women Voters does amazing work, and its election events offer unparalleled opportunities for voters to address the candidates directly. Those fortunate enough to attend Tuesday’s forum saw the candidates delve into highly technical discussions of school district finances, curricula and more.But let’s make the most of that opportunity. Let’s allow voters to make it personal.