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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
ConventionNext: Salt Lake City Mayoral Candidates

As an outsider, I found the candidate forum interesting. But don't expect a broad spectrum of views from these candidates.

I attended Politic2.0's first event in April and waxed rather verbose about the politics and the technology involved in that experimental chat with Representative Chris Cannon. Politic2.0's second "ConventionNEXT" event was tonight at the Salt Lake City Public Library. It featured, again, a few dozen participants who were physically present, laptops clicking, and an unspecified number of participants who were only virtually present, via the Internet. The attraction: A forum in which five of six Salt Lake City mayoral candidates answered questions.

I won't say much about the technology here, except to note that the Web interface tonight was simpler, sleeker, and more effective than a few months ago, as expected.

I will say a few words about the venue. I found a parking spot easily across the street from the Library, which I had never visited before. I began by climbing the long, curving arch from ground level to the roof of the six-story building. It's a pleasant walk with an excellent view of the city. Atop the building are gardens, benches, etc. Two or three people were up there, working away on their laptops. I found my way off the roof without much difficulty.

I saw but didn't visit the book-related areas or operations in the building. The glass elevators are fun. The common area is pleasant and lined with a shop, a cafe, and other attractions. And the main auditorium is both functional and beautiful.

The Format

I was about half an hour early, by design. I found a seat in the narrow balcony on one side, near an electrical outlet, logged into the free wireless Internet service, went to www.politic20.com, logged in there, and began to review the questions already submitted. I gave a positive vote to some questions I wanted asked, a negative vote to others I didn't, and even added one of my own, though I'm not from Salt Lake City and don't have a vote or a horse in their mayoral race. I commented on a couple of questions, too, because the Web site allows discussion of a question both before and after it is asked in the live forum.

At any given point in the forum, the question asked was the still-unasked question with the highest cumulative numeric score, based on +1 for each positive vote and -1 for each negative vote. Except for a 7 at the beginning, the asked questions ranged in score from 9 to 14. The lowest score I saw was -9, for a question about the candidates' religious affiliation.

There was streaming video of the event, but I didn't watch it, since I was there in person. (You can.) They kept a list of the current, next, and highest-scoring upcoming questions on the screen at the front of the hall, which encouraged those present to affect the rankings by voting on the questions bubbling to the top of the queue.

The questions and answers went on for about 90 minutes, followed by brief closing statements. I thought it an excellent and effective forum, with serious people asking and answering serious questions. In this, it contrasted satisfactorily with the recent YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate, a ridiculous spectacle which trivialized the issues, the candidates, and the election and was really rather tasteless. (Small wonder the major Republican candidates refused invitations to a similar event for them.)

Miscellaneous Notes about Issues and Candidates

The candidates present were Jenny Wilson, currently a member of the Salt Lake County Council; Keith Christensen, a former Salt Lake City Councilor, whose campaign Web site loads much too slowly even via broadband; Utah House Minority Leader Ralph Becker; surgeon J. P. Hughes; and longtime Hispanic activist John Renteria, whose Web site I couldn't find on Google (if he has one). Candidate and current Salt Lake City Councilor Dave Buhler was absent due to a scheduling conflict.

(The home page of Buhler's Web site deserves an award for exceptional slowness. Don't even try it via dialup. Animation is flashy, but counterproductive and very slow. "To see the candidate greet you in a meaningless, impersonal fashion, click here" would be better, if only because it would get him off his home page. At least you'd have a choice.)

Here are miscellaneous notes, in more or less chronological order.

  • I wonder how this approach (mostly the technology) would scale for presidential debates.
  • The five fell all over themselves in assuring everyone that they support equal rights for the LGBT community (that's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual). This is Salt Lake City, after all, where a Republican mayor hasn't been elected in decades, and the win usually goes to the more liberal non-Mormon Democrat in the runoff.
  • Only Renteria ventured any negative comment about the LDS Church. Most distanced themselves from it more tactfully, and Hughes wore his LDS affiliation on his sleeve to a somewhat irritating degree. If you want open, Rocky-like hostility to the LDS Church, Renteria is your best best, based solely on tonight.
  • All are opposed to school vouchers -- and competed for adverbs, like "adamantly" -- except Hughes, who waffled. Christensen's opposition seems conditioned on specific details, like whether they help young families and people not already going to private schools, so maybe he was waffling, too.
  • Wilson worked for Mitt Romney in the Olympics and in mentioning it managed to take such a subtle, very politically correct cheap shot at Romney, that I'm not even sure it really was a cheap shot.
  • Wilson was more subtle suggesting a unique understanding of women (she is one), by noting that she was probably the only candidate who changed a diaper earlier today, that Renteria was in suggesting that he uniquely understands the plight of minorities. (Both assertions may be true.)
  • I'm not sure whether "How are you trying to stop the influence of money on politics?" is the "How naive are you?" question or the "How indifferent are you to free speech?" question, but there sure was a lot of support for publicly funded campaigns at the table. Wilson at least has some credibility on the subject, having helped impose some sanity on Salt Lake County officials in that respect.
  • For a solidly left-of-center group in a left-of-center city, they sure tread lightly on the subject of concealed weapons. No one was solidly against them. Only Hughes dared mention Trolley Square.
  • There was some intelligent discussion of the future skybridge and of making Salt Lake City into a city where a family doesn't need a car -- or at least needs only one car.
  • Renteria achieved the five-second answer on a question about Wilson's campaign expenditures.
  • Christensen went out of his way a few times to mention that Mayor Rocky Anderson endorses him. Maybe he hasn't read the polls, which show pretty high negatives for Mayor Rocky.
  • Becker managed to intone the sacred words, "the real crisis we have with climate change."
  • I wonder who had staffers online stacking the questions and voting on them. I saw some obvious staffers online, but there were probably more.
  • There was general enthusiasm for public transit and a scattering of interesting ideas to advance it. Christensen suggested fare discounts on red burn days and using smaller buses on new routes, until ridership increases.
  • The non-staff, non-candidate audience in the auditorium was about 30, I believe. I haven't yet heard how many participated via the Internet.

General Impressions of the Candidates

I'm an outside observer, with no firm sense of how some of the candidates have performed in other offices or how they are perceived by the voters. All five seemed intelligent and at least reasonably articulate. My general, one-or-two-line impressions of the candidates are based solely on tonight's event.

  • Jenny Wilson is solidly on the left but seems to have some grip on reality, some good ideas, and some political sense and skill. She is very articulate and explains her thoughts clearly. She is a very credible candidate.
  • Ralph Becker is solidly on the left, too, but his ideas seem insufficiently tempered by reality or by an abundance of common sense. I doubt his viability in a well-qualified field, even if he has won some elections to a House minority.
  • John Renteria is probably the farthest left of them all, with a big dose of the minority rebel, and makes me wonder about voter turnout on the west side. He was calm, cool, and collected, and made sense. Al Sharpton could take a lesson.
  • Keith Christensen seems to be a centrist trying to sound as if he leans left. Intelligent and a sensible organizer, he seems like a serious candidate. But he seemed to struggle to be himself tonight -- or not to be, I'm not sure. It's almost as off-putting as Dave Buhler's Web site.
  • J. P. Hughes is intelligent and well-meaning, with left-leaning instincts he hasn't fully thought through. He has trouble being concise and seems a bit pie-in-the-sky on problems such as homelessness. Not a bad guy; not a great candidate.

I can't evaluate Dave Buhler, due to his absence this evening. Maybe I would prefer him; he is a Republican. But considering only the five who were present, there's none I could vote for with enthusiasm, if I could vote in Salt Lake City. If I had to pick two of five (excluding the absent Buhler), I'd pick Wilson and Christensen. If I had to pick one of those two . . . Wilson. I like her style, if not necessarily her philosophies.

That's how I expect the race to shake out, too. I don't see anyone taking the left away from Jenny Wilson. Her challenger in November is likely to be either Christensen or Buhler. I don't think Christensen is different enough or sufficiently well-defined to energize voters on the right and in the center. I don't think voters to her right will find Wilson offensive enough that they will flock in droves to Christensen. Maybe Buhler beats Christensen in the primary, but I don't see how he'll then beat a solid candidate on the left (Wilson) in the November run-off. Not in Salt Lake City.

Shall we come back in a month, and then again in November, to see how right or wrong I was? The primary election is September 11, and the two with the most votes will square off on November 6. The race is officially non-partisan.

David Rodeback comments (8/16/07):

Jenny Wilson leads Dave Buhler by a nose in this week's polling, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. But as soon as the field is pared to two, if the two are Wilson and Buhler, watch for other candidates' supporters to line up mostly behind Wilson.

Meanwhile, Holly Mullen (Wilson's stepmother and a noteworthy Salt Lake City journalist and blogger) isn't pleased with the cynical process the Tribune used to come up with an early endorsement of Keith Christensen. You'll have to wade through a lot of very familiar anti-Bush rhetoric to get to the interesting part of this SL Weekly column, none of it particularly original, but you'll survive it, and the inside view of newspaper endorsements is interesting when you get there.

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