Friday, September 14, 2012

There's No Excuse for Lack of Debates

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on September 14, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

            A political campaign is all about getting people to vote for you, or at least against the other candidate.  Every politician worth their salt knows most elections are won or lost long before the day the voting actually occurs. 

            Part of the campaign process is to try and match your strength against your opponent’s perceived weakness.  Winning a debate on the issues is not nearly as important as dictating which issues are actually debated.  If you can shape the campaign the way you want, you are much more likely to win it.

            That principle is clearly on display in the race for state representative in Attleboro, where incumbent republican Rep. George Ross is being opposed by democrat Paul Heroux.  As is the norm when a political newcomer runs against an established official, the newcomer has challenged the incumbent to debate.  And therein begins the political games and doubletalk.

            Generally speaking, challengers want debates and incumbents do not.  Those already in office have a documented track record which can be both a boon and a burden.  They usually have higher visibility and voter recognition than their opponents.  So when it comes to appearing in public with the other candidate, they have little to gain and a lot to lose.

            The new office-seeker faces just the opposite situation.  They need credibility, and anytime they can share the stage with the person they are seeking to unseat, they have to make the most of it.  And if the incumbent refuses or limits the debates – which they usually do – the challenger can point to that as disrespecting the voters and being afraid to defend their record.

            That scenario is playing out in the Ross-Heroux race.  Heroux has challenged Ross to four debates before the November election.  He wants to debate both general topics and specific issues such as the economy and crime.  Ross has tentatively agreed to a single debate, although he has indicated he may not even do that if he decides Heroux has not kept the race “clean”.

            But Ross keeps using silly and unnecessary excuses to explain his decision to have only one debate.  He stated he would only meet his opponent once publicly because he is hard at work in his legislative capacity.  “I am a full-time legislator”, Ross said in explaining his rejection of multiple debates.  He noted he is doing the job people elected him to do, and is busy working on improving the economy. 

            Of course, the legislative session ended in July and the House will not reconvene for months.  That might leave many to conclude Ross would have at least a little bit of time on his hands.  But the freshman legislator insists he still has meetings at the Statehouse and elsewhere, and is concentrating on addressing many important issues.

            Ross is no doubt a hard-working legislator, but this borders on the ridiculous.  Anyone with any political common sense knows the main reason the legislature adjourns at this time of year is so the members can go home to their districts and work on being reelected.  There may be a lot of valid reasons for Ross to not want to debate Heroux four times, but being “too busy” is not one of them.

            Political debates should be viewed as job interviews by both the public and the candidates.  Voters need to see their political representatives and would-be representatives engaged in explaining and defending their positions under the glare and focus of the public spotlight.  How candidates react and function under that pressure can tell you a lot about how they might be when facing down a budget deadline or considering critical funding issues.  No decision should be made strictly based upon debate performance, but it can be important.

            Heroux is reaching by requesting four debates.  That just isn’t really necessary for this kind of race and in this situation.  But one is equally insufficient.  The citizens they seek to represent deserve better from both sides. 

            So Ross and Heroux need to stop angling for political advantage and sit down for a couple of real, issue-oriented debates.  If they can manage to fit that into their busy schedules, the real winners will be the voters and citizens of Attleboro.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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