On Oct. 21 at Wines Elementary School, The Ann Arbor Chronicle hosted a forum for city council candidates in Ward 5. Two of the three candidates participated: John Floyd, a Republican, and Newcombe Clark, who is running as an independent. Choosing not to participate was the Democratic incumbent, Carsten Hohnke.
The format of the event was a departure from familiar question-and-answer schemes. Candidates were provided with 10 specific topic areas in advance, and advised that on the night of the event, they’d be presented with a list-making task they’d be expected to complete collaboratively for each topic area.
To give a flavor of the chemistry between the candidates at the forum, after the event one attendee wrote about John Floyd: “… the city would be lucky to have his service … but I’m still not voting for him.” That attendee was Newcombe Clark. Also during the event, the two candidates were able to find an effective strategy for working through the tasks. We’re reporting how they completed those tasks in a separate article.
In this column, we discuss why The Chronicle would invest its limited time and resources in the effort to stage a candidate forum for Ward 5 city council candidates, and why we would opt for a somewhat unusual task-based format.
Why Ward 5 City Council?
One reason that a publication might sponsor an election-related event is to gain publicity for itself. But The Chronicle could have achieved greater publicity by sponsoring a forum for gubernatorial candidates Rick Snyder and Virg Bernero. So why not aspire to the very top of the ticket? First, and last, I don’t think either candidate would have agreed to participate.
Snyder would, I think, be wary of any task-based candidate event– because no one is good at every kind of task. For example, suppose a candidate forum organizer defined the following task: Here’s some wood, some newspapers and some matches … work together to build a fire. Now, based on my experience several years ago sharing a cabin on Drummond Island with a group of people that included Snyder, the man does not know much about how to build a fire. The idea of piling a prodigious amount of newspaper on top of some logs and lighting it on fire does, I think, provide an interesting analogy to a venture capital approach to economic development. But it’s not generally effective in getting logs to catch fire, even if your venture capital firm’s slogan is “Igniting the Future.”
If The Chronicle could not realistically contemplate sponsoring a gubernatorial event, then we had a choice of local races. So why not the mayoral race? Or, if we wanted to focus on the city council races, why not include Ward 2 – which also has a contested race?
The most straightforward answer is this: Ward 5 is where The Chronicle lives. And Ward 5 is offering three – that’s right three – candidates to Ward 5 voters on Nov. 2, which makes Ward 5 the mightiest of the city’s five wards. I will fight anyone who says different.
Why Not The Democrat?
The impetus for The Chronicle to stage the candidate forum came from John Floyd and Newcombe Clark. The initial communication to us suggesting that The Chronicle sponsor an event for Ward 5 candidates came from Clark. And that’s consistent with Floyd’s remarks at Wines Elementary on the night of the event, thanking Clark for his push for candidates to engage in a series of encounters.
Based on the emailed communication thread that I was a part of, the Democratic Party’s nominee and incumbent, Carsten Hohnke, from the beginning displayed no interest in participating in The Chronicle’s event. Flexibility in time, venue, and moderator was offered, this last because he eventually expressed a belief that I could not be impartial because of The Chronicle’s pending litigation against the city. [That litigation involves an alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act by the Ann Arbor city council in connection with a closed session conducted on the topic of medical marijuana.]
In a face-to-face conversation with Hohnke, he clarified to me that his choice not to participate in The Chronicle’s event was not a matter of scheduling, venue, format, or the moderator, but simply that Hohnke did not feel he needed to participate, given that he was participating in other events. And in this, Hohnke is likely correct – in a general election for city council or the mayorship, the nominee of the Democratic Party has a clear advantage that would take a great deal of work for a non-Democrat to overcome. A clear majority of Ann Arbor city residents are either fiercely loyal to the Democratic Party, or at least identify more strongly with the values of the national Democratic Party than with other parties.
So all other things being equal, it’s reasonable to expect that most voters will pick the Democratic nominee out of a ballot lineup of consisting of a Democrat, a Republican and an independent candidate. What might make all things not as equal is if voters actually know one or more of the candidates – directly or through a candidate’s social/professional network, or through their election campaigns. And Democratic supporters demonstrate they understand this when they characterize the Ward 5 race as a choice between a Democrat, a Republican and “a developer.”
For many voters, this is how they will see the candidates – because I don’t think that most Ann Arbor voters actually keep track of local governance. Nor do they have interest – or, to be fair, the time – to achieve anything more than a superficial understanding of who these people are that we elect to represent us on the city council. For a Democratic Party cheerleader, there’s little incentive to encourage voters to try to get to know each candidate as much as possible. So the burden really rests squarely, and fairly, on candidates to find a way to tell voters who they are.
Some local pundits might suggest tweaks to our local process – for example, non-partisan elections, redefinition of ward boundaries, instant-run-off elections, elimination of the straight-ticket voting option – as changes that might result in a different cast of characters sitting around the city council table. I’m skeptical. I would count some of those changes as positive, but they’re not on my list of priorities to push – because changes like that distract from a simple reality: People will actually vote for you, if they know who you are and trust you, whatever your party affiliation. In fact, that’s the same reality that our current cast of characters demonstrate when they run and win their Democratic primaries.
Sabra Briere, for example, didn’t win her Ward 1 Democratic primary of 2007 because she was a Democrat (they all were – that’s what a primary is) or because she enjoyed the endorsement of The Ann Arbor News – The News endorsed one of her opponents, the incumbent John Roberts. She won because a lot of people already knew who she was, and were familiar with her through her previous public service – and she ran an effective campaign that built on that, to help more people understand who she was.
Not running as a Democrat is a disadvantage. But a bigger disadvantage is a mindset that blames poor performance by non-Democrats at the polls based purely on that Democratic advantage. Tom Bourque did not blame the Democratic advantage back in 2005 when he ran as the Republican candidate for Ward 2 city council. He had this to say, in not whining about his loss to Stephen Rapundalo, an erstwhile Republican who ran as a Democrat:
… presuming that I did reasonably well for a neophyte person running for office, then I think I have to attribute that to knowing a bunch of people and those people who knew me trying to tell other people, whether I was somebody who was smart enough, and honest enough, and willing to work hard enough to be a good councilperson … That’s why people who knew me through dealing with me as a lawyer or people who knew me through other things even if it was just friends or through my kids or anything … a lot of people who were staunch Democrats still voted for me. But they also had to have some kind of personal knowledge or at least try and find out if anybody knew me. I think that that’s why Stephen Rapundalo probably won. Because he knew a whole bunch of people in his neighborhood.
Some candidates are already known by a lot of people, while others have to work harder at it – by running a campaign that helps people understand who they are and what they’re about. I think Clark and Floyd understand this, and it might explain their willingness, even eagerness, to participate in a novel forum format that allowed them to highlight their personal style, sense and values. For Hohnke, he’s apparently betting that there are not enough people already in his opponents’ networks that it could translate into an election threat. He’s also betting that the campaigns of Clark and Floyd have not educated enough voters about who they really are to result in a majority of ballots cast in their favor.
The format for The Chronicle’s candidate forum took as a starting point familiar topics and issues, but also allowed candidates to put their interactive style on display. Because at the end of the day, we’re electing a person to office, not a person’s stance on a set of issues. Issues change in the course of a two-year council term. And given that most residents do not invest the energy to inform themselves in any depth about issues that don’t affect them in a very immediate way, we chose a format that might allow voters to have a clearer idea of who these guys actually are that we’re choosing between.
The risk that candidates take in helping voters reach a clearer understanding of who they are is this: We voters might, after learning more about who the candidates really are, decide that we don’t like them very much.
Why Lists as Tasks?
The basic task we asked the candidates to complete was the same for every topic area: Make a list. That consistency of task format across different topics has the advantage of efficiency. Because it’s the same kind of task over and over again, there’s no need to invest time and energy explaining some new kind of task with new rules and new roles to learn. And everyone already knows what it means to make a list.
And making lists – either mentally or using MS Excel – accounts for an awful lot of ordinary work that we all do. And that extends to the work of governance. Whether something is on a list or not, and how high it is on the list, is always a fair and frequent question. Take for example this bit of Chronicle reporting from a spring 2010 city council meeting focused on the budget (emphasis added):
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) suggested that the old YMCA lot merited a community discussion. An additional land parcel downtown that Rapundalo thought warranted some focus was the parking lot at Main & William, next to Palios restaurant. He noted that there were just 21 parking spaces at the lot, but it was possibly ripe for investment. He wanted to know if it was on the list somewhere. [City administrator Roger] Fraser told him it was on a list, but not near the top.
List-making as a task for candidates has the advantage that members of the audience or readers can also mentally engage it. How audience members mentally engage a list-making task is, I think, likely more visceral than trying to imagine what their own response would be to a standard candidate Q & A prompt. For example: What would be on my list? What’s missing from their list? What would I cross off their list?
Defining the tasks as list-making also has the advantage that, in the end, you get something pretty concrete as a result – a list. I imagined that if the tasks were designed with sufficient care, the lists could actually count as a useful piece of public policy work that could serve as a touchstone for future work. When confronted with an actual similar task in real life at some time in the future, I imagined, public officials might recall what the candidates at the Ward 5 forum produced.
I also anticipated that writing about this event would be made easier by the fact that the report could consist basically of the lists the candidates made. The candidates would essentially write the report for me. This, I thought, was pure journalistic genius.
How the Format Failed and Succeeded
As it turns out, Floyd and Clark engaged the tasks in good faith and produced lists as they’d been asked to do, but they were able to find quite a lot of agreement about the content of those lists. That is to say, they did not fight to the death over the inclusion or exclusion of any item on the list, but rather were content mostly to get a bunch of ideas onto the board. So while the lists they produced are interesting and revealing, I don’t anticipate that any one of their lists will be cited in future public policy work that gets done in the city – except perhaps by me, because I will want to remind readers that The Chronicle did go to all that trouble to sponsor that event. And that, of course, is one of the reasons a publication will sponsor such an event in the first place.
Floyd and Clark also, for the most part, pounded out their list items fairly rapidly, and then used them as something like a basis for another conversation, which was not necessarily about what to put on the list or how to rank items on the list. That is, the interesting part of the forum was not the lists, but rather what came after the list-making. The candidates thus completely wrecked my hope of having an easy task of reporting the event. But this is mostly how things turn out for journalists – unless they’re already committed in advance to writing the story they’d like to write, instead of the story that wants to be written.
The story that wanted to be written, then, counts for me as the success of the format. It’s reported here: [link]