The First Gubernatorial Debate

Jeff Alworth

This afternoon, Ron Saxton squared off against Ted Kulongoski in the OPB studios for the first gubernatorial debate.  In addition to OPB, it was sponsored by Stand for Children, Children First for Oregon and the Children's Institute and centered principally around the welfare of children.  (Though Ron managed to work in a point or two about taxes.) I had a chance to attend.   

[Editor's note: The debate will air at 9 p.m. tonight on OPB-TV. Listen to the audio here (mp3, 52mb!)]

The format of the debate played strongly to Ted's hand--it allowed him to talk about what government can do for children.  Saxton, whose core constituents care more about business than education, wasn't able to highlight his strengths.  Nevertheless, education is the single biggest item in the state's budget, and Saxton--a former chair of Portland Public Schools Board--has made it a prominent part of his campaign.  Coming in, his intention was to hold his own with Ted and convince swing-voting parents he was going to improve school performance.  (As a handy backgrounder on the status of kids in Oregon, have a look at Children First's 2006 Report Card.)  Ted needed a homer, Ron a single.

I'll give you an above-the-fold summary here, and then for masochists, you can read my notes on the elements of the debate below.  I tried to adopt the mindset of a swing voter who is leery of taxes but wants good schools and adequate funding for programs.  I adopted a skeptical attitude toward the candidates and looked for signs they weren't being fully forthcoming.  I'm obviously a Kulongoski guy, but I wanted to (try to) avoid home-team boosterism.

Through this lens, I saw a two candidates committed to kids.  But the Governor was the more passionate, the more familiar with the real issues, and the least likely to slip into pat answers.  For a guy who says he wants to improve schools, Saxton fell uncomfortably often back on the "make them more efficient" response to policy questions.  Kulongoski had solid answers and a lot of passion for kids. 

I actually scored each question (though I spaced out on one) through this lens and came up with nine draws, three Saxton advantages and seven Kulongoski advantages (details below).  I would call it a single-run homer for Ted and something just shy of the single Ron needed.  Danger yet looms for the Governor: when he talks about Saxton and his business orientation, he has a tendency to slide into overheated and/or dismissive rhetoric.  At one point, he talked about Saxton's big oil buddies and got groans from the audience.  In a debate with a business-friendly crowd and rigorous questions about the economy, Ted's going to have to stick to the same passionate, informed speech he used when talking about kids.  We'll see how he does in a more hostile environment.  Today, though, the debate was his.  It was a nice performance, and nice to see him define himself after weeks of Saxton ads.

Okay, now to the minutiae.  All you non-wonky types, feel free to ignore...

Score one for Ted

Score one for Ron

Ted shoots--he misses!

Ron shoots--he misses!

All right, that's far too long for a blog post, but at least I know it is.  Apologies all around.

Oh wait--one last thing, since this is indecently long.  If you watch the credits and see Christy George speaking with animation to the candidates, she's giving them cues about looking sharp while the credits roll.  At one point, all three laugh and look at the monitor where the credits are rolling as they talk about laughing while the credits are rolling.  Very meta and amusing. 

Okay, done.

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    Okay, this beast was actually longer, but I took out the behind-the-scenes paragraphs. Here they are:

    Watching a debate in a studio audience is an odd experience. We were actually the set dressing, a backdrop for the camera, off in the dimly-lit recesses beyond the camera lights. Worst, we were sitting behind the candidates, so we got all the expressivity the back of a man's head can communicate. Host Christy George asked us to shush while she ran through the notes on the teleprompter and then we chatted in the dim light until the candidates came in. The Governor came first, giving him the chance to select his seat (naturally, he took the left), and a minute later, the taller Saxton joined him. They managed a brief conversation before we got the two-minute warning and all settled into a looonngg, uncomfortable silence. You have no idea how long two minutes is until you've crouched in the darkness of a TV studio waiting for the cameras to start rolling.

    See, I do have some restraint. Some.

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    OK, just added a link to OPB's audio recording here.

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    warning on that mp3: it's 52 mb - huge.

  • KISS (unverified)

    Thanks for being fair, Jeff. I won't have the opportunity to see it but as you describe the debate it must have been civil, something I thought might not be. While money is very necessary for education, I think there are more problems that also must be addressed.

  • Courtney Anglin (unverified)

    Watch it with us.

    A bunch of Bus Project folk are meeting at My Father's Place at SE Grand and Stark (next to the Slow Bar) tonight to rant and rave and drink beer.

    We even have permission to throw things at the television.


    We don't.

    The more the merrier. And we're stronger funnier together than we are apart.

    and anyone who wants to show up a bit early and man the television, they've said we can definitely show it as long as noone puts on a sporting event...

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    It's always hard to fairly gauge the effectiveness of a personal appearance by a candidate from a written "after action" report, but this not real encouraging. Frankly, a candidate who talks about core Democratic values, and walks the talk, should win going away in this state and in these times. That surface appearances suggest it is close (whether or not that is the reality) is not real positive.

    Kulongoski's proposal to fund healthcare is the basest hypocrisy: We're really sending a strong values message as a party and about Kulogonski as our leader by telling kids we need folks to kill themselves by smoking to fund healthcare for kids. That he put this out as centerpiece of his campaign shows exceeding dumbness on the part of someone. There's no evidence this is worth any extra percentage points on election day, and it leaves folks like me trying to decide just how suited to leadership he actually is.

    One of the most important things a candidate must always attempt to do is to define his/her opposition so that his/her opposition is on the defensive. Nothing is more illuminating about the innate leadership ability of a candidate than his/her ability to make an opponent always looking like he/she is reduced to saying "no I'm not" or, even worse, "I know you are, but what am I". If the best Kulogonski's staff can come up with is attempting to define a regressive like Saxton based on his performance as chair of the school board, than they are bigger wankers than I thought from the truly unsettling campaign commercial they ran on some radio stations. (I checked with a couple of friends; they were as turned off as I was by the commercial, and as a result have a more negative opinion of his character - a real blunder.)

    Some skilled campaigners need to help Kulogonski sharpen his fangs so he can go after Saxton's character as a pawn of unprincipled interests, and just another Republican who is more about having power than actually standing up for the values of working people.

  • LT (unverified)

    I wonder if any ordinary folks (not political junkies) will watch this or listened to it on the radio. Does Saxton realize that if he becomes Governor, "we have to talk about" won't be enough?

    That answer about the foster parents was lame. Some of the answer about getting kids ready to start Kindergarten was good, but some was not. "Parents must step up..."? Parents barely making ends meet should be doing more for their kids? Who does Saxton know who is barely making ends meet?

    I thought it a very "ear of the beholder" debate. People already decided aren't likely to change their minds. But people looking for specific proposals aren't going to be impressed with "we've got to talk about..."

  • myranda (unverified)

    Hey, "AskQuestionsist," why shouldn't Kulongoski bring up Saxton's tenure on the school board--it's the only record that Saxton has! Kulongoski brought it up and asked Saxton to square his gubernatorial "cut expenses" rhetoric with his miserable, spendthrift performance on the school board. Pray tell, what would your question be to Saxton, if you were given the chance to ask him one question?

  • listensecond (unverified)

    If AQ1 has asked "a couple of friends" about the Kulongoski's radio spot, I'll have to take him at his word that that happened. Hardly makes him a political expert. Got cable news and read political blogs from time to time? Great. Does it mean he's ready to intern for a state rep race? Sure, what the hell.

    But his unfailingly self-important, sarcastic posts are really wearing out their welcome. Politics aside, the only true usefulness of these post is to act as a reminder that grade A jackasses come in all political persuasions.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    I was bored to tears within the first 8 minutes. It's hard to believe we couldn't find two more qualified candidates to run for Governor of Oregon. Maybe it's time to increase the salary range? How about a free condo in Maui, or a discreet Lewis & Clark alumnae who's willing to intern 24/7 (Bernie will chaffeur).

    Saxton was wearing a better tie, but he needed a hair cut. Personally, I liked him better with the Scott Thomason glasses: he looks like Gephardt without them (hard to trust a man with no eyebrows)...

    As soon as I see Teddy's lips moving, I am transported back to my junior high social studies class...As long as he doesn't call on me, it doesn't really matter if I'm not listening to him, right?

    Everything Teddy didn't accomplish in the first term will be a much higher priority in his second term, assuming it benefits a dues paying member. Oregon's economy was bad, bad, bad (not my fault)...Economy is better, better, better (you can thank ME for those 30,000 jobs).

    It's as if Teddy was a robot built by the boys at the NECA-IBEW and programmed by the teacher's union. Why is he always smirking?

    It's a wonder that nobody in the audience laughed out loud.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    myranda -

    Didn't say he shouldn't bring it up. Only that if that's all Kulogonski has, it's nowhere near enough to negatively define Saxton in a way that resonates with "average" voters and makes Kulogonski look like a leader. Big difference. Ask yourself how many "average" voters care deeply about the school board (think about the ages of the children of the over 50 voters who are the bulk of folks who vote), and what fraction of those even understand or care deeply specifically about the job Saxton did as superintendent? That's the number of voters Kulongoski is going to appeal to with that message.

    Look closely at the campaign communications of successful candidates you admire (and those you don't) and the nature of how they do their campaign messaging. As I am typing this I'm listening to a Saxton commercial which is a textbook example of what I'm talking about. He defines Kulogonski in terms of what he misleadingly says is Kulongoski's attitude towards taxes and fees, something that is in the understanding and of concern to a much larger number of Oregon voters.

    And if I were running against Saxton, I wouldn't ask him anything (except as a rhetorical device). I'd be defining him as negatively as I possibly could while still indisputably being factually accurate. Specifically how that is done is Kulogonski's job if he wants to win votes.

    listensecond -

    Most folks recognize they have little knowledge about the actual background of the folks who post here, so they recognize that generally the intelligent thing to do is to confine themselves to addressing the topic. Obviously you suffer from no such commonsense restraints.

    Nonetheless, here's a news flash for you: Kulongoski needs votes. Voters have votes to give. As in many cases in real life, it's not a fair market between givers and seekers. In this particular transaction, the givers have the whip hand over the seeker, and it takes a seeker with certain leadership qualities to induce the givers to give it up for him.

    You and Kulongoski's campaign handlers can take or leave the feedback that their radio and TV commercials were poorly received by several voters that are in his base, and that it gave them an unsettling feeling about his character and leadership ability. In another thread I gave the reasons why the commercials were a turnoff. People can evaluate for themselves whether it makes sense. Why don't you spend your time addressing the substance of comments folks make, and give us a reason to believe you actually have something useful to add to the discussion?

    Mister Tee -

    Twice in one week I have agreed with you about something. Disturbing. In this case I agree 100% with your comment: It's hard to believe we couldn't find two more qualified candidates to run for Governor of Oregon. I almost certainly disagree with you about your belief about the reason though. In my view we are reaping the consequences of a generation (my generation) that has demeaned the value of government service and critical thinking to the point that we can't produce a sufficient number of competent and willing leaders. It's a structural problem that may only be fully solved by our children and grandchildren.

    And even though I'm a Democrat who will reluctantly vote for Kulogonski given the truly disgusting alternative that Saxton represents, I agree with what I think is your general sentiment that so far that Kulongoski has not communicated a compelling message or comes across as particularly trustworthy. As I commented above, any Democrat who says we should pay for health care for kids by depending on their parents and relatives to kill themselves by smoking is just a jerk plain and simple in my book. (And just to be clear, I am also strongly opposed to the obnoxious, nanny-state, anti-smoking agenda that too many are aggressively pushing.)

  • bama_barrron (unverified)

    Hey ASQ1 ... when your comment rivalies the original diary for length ... you are trying much to hard to be taken seriously!

  • askquestion1st (unverified)

    bama_barrron -

    When a comment addresses three different comments on distinct subjects, and therefore is three posts edited into one so that one doesn't have too make to many posts in a row, does it even seem conceivable to you that trying to be taken seriously is not the goal?

    listensecond and bama_barrron illustrate an interesting phenomena of our times. Some of us whose involvement in political activities predates the internet and personal computers are quite interested in understanding what the new communications tools mean for politics in our representative democracy. Reason might suggest that folks in that situation might tend to be mainly focus on participation and the substance of the matters at hand. We seem now to be in a time when too many are instead are mainly about being the center of attention, that's a lot of what is behind the blogging phenomena, and therefore are wont to spend their time in such forums commenting on and interpreting the motives others from that perspective rather than on substance.

    The interesting question really is whether that is pretty much all folks like listensecond or bama_barrron are capable of adding to a thread that is pondering the effectiveness of two people running for governor in reaching voters? Or is it the manner or substance in the first person reaction of a commentator to the messages those candidates are sending that really bothers them most? If you two had bothered to address yourself to anything on the substance said here by anyone we might have learned something that actually is relevant to the race.

  • MarkDaMan (unverified)

    What I found interesting is when Saxton began to answer the 'parent notification before an abortion' question after the Governor. One of the first things he said, and I don't have the exact quote, is that this will not affect a woman of legal age, the right to choose.

    Afterwards, I was talking with a friend that had also watched the debate. We both came back to that statement. Saxton needs the conservative movement to win in Oregon. Almost any Repubs these days need the conservative Christian vote to win a majority. Having the option yesterday to state that this was just a start to what would be better controls on abortion in our state, Ron made this an issue only about teenage abortion, while almost suggesting that he respected the right of a 18 year old to choose for herself. He might have lost some conservatives hoping that he wasn't moving himself back to the middle.

    I also have to disagree with Jeff about Kulo's answer. I think he needs to be better rehearsed, but he said the right things. We shouldn't be focusing on the abortion, but educating our young men and women so they don't get into the sticky situation in the first place. I do agree he kind of muddied the answer though.

  • MATT DAMON (unverified)

    Here is what really happened last night:

    Ron: "Ted is a Tax and Spend Liberal"

    Ted: "Yes I raise taxes but this is what it buys."

    Ron won.

    Every True Blue Democrat should be very scared...Right now Ted is falling apart and it is going to be Boots on the Ground that will have to carry him across the finish line (Just like 2002).

    Otherwise I hope you'all enjoy Gov Saxton for 4 years.

  • LT (unverified)

    Matt, About this: ...Right now Ted is falling apart and it is going to be Boots on the Ground that will have to carry him across the finish line (Just like 2002). Otherwise I hope you'all enjoy Gov Saxton for 4 years.

    The possibility of Saxton as Gov. and both chambers of the legislature being Dem. would be interesting to watch. Ron would actually have to make intelligent decisions--is he capable of that? He hired Jim Scherzinger (sp.?) to do the Portland district finances--the most intelligent thing I learned from the debate. Given Jim's legislative budget experience, would Ron hire Jim to help him compose the state budget? Who would run the transition?

    Being Governor means going beyond "we have to talk about...". It means appointing people, making executive decisions and executive orders, writing a budget, and all manner of other things. And people are not going to trust a new governor who says "what the previous governor did wrong was..." once the election is over and the actual decisions have to be made. If it is necessary to fund something like state police and the only source of the money without raising taxes is the corporate kicker and tax loopholes, is Saxton going to say "well, public safety is less important than keeping the no new taxes pledge"?

    And some of the things he has said this year have alienated potential or actual legislators. Does he have powers of persuasion? Or will we see his proposals fail to pass the legislature? What magic wand is he going to wave to magically turn all of PERS into 401k because that is what he wants? Will current retirees and those about to retire get PERS, or aren't we supposed to ask such a detailed question?

    Being elected Gov. would call Saxton's bluff. I didn't hear anything in the debate which caused me to think he really does understand the role of Governor and that the Legislature is an equal branch. He makes it sound like everything which has happened in 4 years is the sole fault / responsibility of the Governor, and legislators had no effect on the process. So why do we have legislators?

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    Being elected will "call Saxton's bluff"? Funny, I thought being elected called Bush's "bluff" about 6 years ago, and it still hasn't phased him much. He keeps finding new and inventive ways to ruin our beloved nation.

    It doesn't matter to a man like Saxton or Bush whether a "bluff" is called if the stakes he's putting up is the future of someone else's children. Why should he care? Even if it all goes to hell, he's not losing anything.

  • sasha (unverified)

    Did I misinterpret something or did Ted Kulongoski announce in the debate that he does indeed want a sales tax?

    That should play well with the voters.

    "Ted Kulongoski wants a sales tax."

    I like the sound of it. It sounds like the gentle whisper of the first Republican governor in the last two decades.

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