The CRC forum went well. Y’all shoulda been there

CRC forum

The city council runoff candidate’s forum sponsored by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council went pretty well. We had a full house, and we had pretty good coverage from The State, WIS, WACH, ABC Columbia and Free Times. Follow the links for their coverage.

The coverage sort of seized on the “jabs” and “barbs” the candidates aimed at each other. There was plenty of that, in part stimulated by some of my questions. And while I had worried that it would be funky doing one forum with people running for two offices, it sort of worked, largely because these guys have split up into tag teams: Howard Duvall and Ed McDowell vs. Andy Smith and Aaron Bishop.

I wasn’t just going for pointless conflict, but I made sure to ask at least one question of each candidate that required him to address a perceived problem or weakness — not just to put them on the spot, but to give them a chance to address, before an audience, these things that people have been saying about them. (And in the case of Duvall and Smith, based on my interviews, I already knew that they had pretty good answers for the questions. People deserved to hear those answers.)

After a softball question or two to all (“What is Columbia’s greatest need, and how will electing you help achieve it?”), I asked one “edgy” question of each. That was really all I had time for in the hour before we went to closing remarks, because I let them go back and forth — response, rebuttal, then (if new allegations came up in the rebuttal, which happened often) another round. I wanted them to say all they had to say, as long as it didn’t drag — and it didn’t.

Here were the individualized questions:

  • To McDowell: “Mayor Steve Benjamin has criticized your ties with former councilman E.W. Cromartie. Please describe your relationship with Mr. Cromartie, and talk about why that is not a problem in your mind.”
  • To Bishop: “We don’t have parties in the usual sense in city elections, but you and Mr. Smith have both been endorsed by Mayor Steve Benjamin, while your opponents seem to be running against him. What should voters think about your ties to the mayor?”
  • To Duvall: “A few years back, we had a city councilman who was known as “Councilman No” (I didn’t say so at the forum, but I meant Hamilton Osborne) – whatever it was, he was against it, or at least that was his reputation. You have presented yourself as a needed obstacle to things the mayor wants to do. Will you be a new Councilman No, or do you have a positive vision for the city’s future?”
  • To Smith: “You are up against a candidate with an intimidating resume. Mr. Duvall is a professional at municipal government. Why should voters choose you, a political novice, over someone who has helped run cities for as long as you’ve been alive?”

I was far too busy to take notes, so go look at The State‘s or the TV coverage to see how they replied. Most of the quotes you see arose from those questions.

forum crowd

20 thoughts on “The CRC forum went well. Y’all shoulda been there

    1. Doug Ross

      And I ask that because of the questions you asked of Duvall and Smith. The question to Duvall was a softball where you gave him the answer in the question “Why, of course, Brad, I will be a positive person. Thank you for asking!” The question to Smith was basically “Why are you here, punk?” It seems like the older you get, the older you like your politicians. Very little change for the positive has been driven by “experienced” politicians. Experienced politicians get their experience through making deals with other experienced politicians.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes. Duvall bought the ad last week, for the duration. Smith did not opt to buy one.

      And you realize you just hit me with the worst insult you can level at a journalist, right?

      Beyond that, do you REALLY think the Duvall question was a softball? Remember the strong-mayor debacle, which Howard engineered via the con of having a special election rather than deciding the matter on Election Day? For me, the essential negativity of his campaign is a big problem. Remember, I’m a guy who wants government to DO stuff, not prevent things from getting done.

      As for the question to Andy (a good friend of my son and daughter-in-law, by the way): I was quite impressed by the answer he gave to that when I interviewed him Saturday. This question gave him a chance to repeat that answer to the crowd.

      Bottom line, as I’ve said before, if you’re going by resume — if this is a straightforward hiring situation, rather than an election — you hire Howard Duvall. He’s the consummate professional when it comes to running a town. But I really worry about his motivation being STOPPING things (“Councilman No” is not a compliment coming from me), and when you talk about someone who has a vision and wants to make the city better — AND someone who has been on the ground participating in turning around Main Street — you go with Andy Smith.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Also, Howard’s best answer to the “Councilman No” isn’t that he wouldn’t be that. “Would NOT” isn’t a very effective answer.

        His best answer to that is the answer he gave me last week when I asked him to name some GOOD things this mayor and council had done, and he rattled off several such things without effort.

        Of course, one of the things he praises is Main Street, which is a reminder that something Andy has been deeply involved in has been a success.

        1. Doug Ross

          You would be endorsing Duvall, correct? He is paying for an ad on your blog. Did you disclose that prior to the forum?

          I still think the the questions reflect a bias of your preference. Perhaps if you had left off the second half of the question to Duvall and not referenced him in such glowing terms in the question to Smith it would have come off as more balanced.

          1. Doug Ross

            A similar loaded question to Duvall might be “Your opponent, Mr. Smith, would bring a fresh vision to the council, a new perspective. At your age, Mr. Duvall, how would you be able to relate to the new generation of Columbia residents that will change the demographics of this city over the next decade?”

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              That would be a Doug Ross question to ask, not a Brad Warthen question to ask, because you and I value opposite things.

              In my worldview, inexperience is a weakness to be overcome, not the strength that you think it is.

              Fortunately for Andy, he has a good answer for overcoming that — that he has 10 years’ experience helping turn around our city — a fact that I knew when I asked the question.

              But I already pointed that out, didn’t I?

              1. Doug Ross

                You KNEW the answer but the audience didn’t, did they? They hear the question praising the opponent’s experience right off the bat. You could have asked essentially the same question without referencing Duvall at all.

                Did you disclose that Duvall is paying for ads on the blog?

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I don’t understand the question. The ad is there for all to see. Of course he’s paying for it.

                  My only concern would be if someone saw it and, not understanding what an ad was, thought it was an endorsement of Duvall. The fact that he’s paying for it is my defense of neutrality, not a problem to be disclosed.

                  You seem to have forgotten the accusation you aimed at me in 2010. You made a big deal of the fact that Vincent Sheheen had NOT yet paid me for the ad running on my blog. Backstory on that: After the ad went up, a new manager took over the campaign, one who had NOT approved the ad. I went back and forth with him and then only got paid for the time it ran before he took over. Tight-fisted guy.

                  I’ve gone back and forth on whether to made political campaigns pay on the front end before an ad goes up. I’ve never made up my mind on that. I could be a hardnose about it, but the whole business of selling ads to people I’m writing about is awkward enough without being all demanding about the money. Also, I figure that the fact that the ad has been running adds moral force to my argument that I am owed something — although that doesn’t seem to press on some people’s consciences the way it would mine. There’s a candidate out there (someone you probably wouldn’t remember; an unsuccessful primary legislative candidate) who still owes me $600 from 2012. I still run into that guy and he always says he’s going to pay me, with interest. I respond that I don’t care about interest, the $600 will be fine.

                  As it happens, I collected from Howard BEFORE the ad went up. But I don’t always do that. I’m a very wishy-washy businessman. Another reason why I need someone to take over the adverts for me.

                  Anyone out there want to help out?

                2. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Oh, and Doug. As for that “They hear the question praising the opponent’s experience right off the bat.”

                  Each question was crafted to address the greatest weakness of the candidate being asked. Duvall’s greatest weakness is the apparent negativity of his reason for running, the lack of a positive vision. Smith’s one great weakness, no question about it, is his own lack of a resume compared to his opponent. And without Howard’s resume, it wouldn’t be an issue.

                  Maybe you see a bigger weakness in Smith. I don’t. I worked with what I had.

                3. Doug Ross

                  My question was whether you disclosed at the forum to the audience that Duvall had paid for an ad on the blog. The audience should know that.

                  In my view, a moderate should not only BE impartial, he should not provide any opportunity to be accused of being impartial. It just doesn’t give the appearance of impartiality to accept ad revenue plus ask the candidates questions that you essentially already knew the answers to because you had met privately with each of them recently and asked similar questions.

                  Gwen Ifill from PBS was flagged for her possible conflict of interest in 2008 when moderating the VP debate because she was in the process of writing a book about Obama.

                4. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Doug, you’re just like a dog with a bone aren’t you?

                  As I’ve made clear, I was not my first choice for moderator, not by a long shot. I’m the guy who stepped up when one was needed, though, and I think I did a pretty good job.

                  I’m sorry you don’t think so, but I’m done trying to persuade you otherwise. I’m moving on…

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              By the way, it would be great if you were to call up the Smith campaign and ask them again if they’d like to buy and ad. I’d love to sell it to them.

              I’m not going to ask twice, because it is EXTREMELY awkward asking the first time.

              When I was an editor at the paper, I would frequently tell out ad directors that I thanked God for them, because I certainly couldn’t go out and sell ads. Aside from the ethical problem as a journalist, I’m just not made for sales. It’s inimical to my nature.

              Now, I either sell ads myself or I don’t have ads. And there is NOTHING about that that isn’t awkward. I’ve tried getting other people to do it for me, but over the years I’ve only found two people willing to try, and neither of them was successful at it.

              If I drew up a blog wish list, someone to sell ads for me would be at the top of the list…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, and something you don’t know… Howard (and only Howard) got a second somewhat accusatory question, from Henri Baskins. She brought up a Fitsnews post suggesting that Howard would be the puppet of Kit Smith — a reference to the “Good Government Group” I’ve written about previously, which could be described variously as a salon of dedicated, thoughtful community leaders, or a cabal of obstructionists, take your pick.

      That led to one of two very interesting moments involving Andy Smith.

      The first was very early. I had asked the Steve Benjamin question of Smith ally Aaron Bishop, but had not gotten to the E.W. Cromartie question to Ed McDowell, when Andy turned to Howard and said, “I think Howard will agree with me that Mayor Benjamin has no more control over my campaign than Cromartie has over his.” That drew a big WHOAAA from the crowd. The audience may have been having the same thought I was having, that Andy had some unsuspected fangs.

      But then, after Henri asked the Will Folks question of Howard and Howard had answered, Andy took the microphone to say that he thought there had been enough questions about candidates’ associations with other people. It was sort of a Bernie Sanders, everybody’s-tired-of-hearing-about-your-damn’-emails moment. That made people think, “Wow, Andy really believes in fair play.”

      Of course, in both situations, he was driving home the point that people were making too much of his endorsement from the mayor.

      Actually, the thing he said that supported that assertion best was when he said he, too, opposed public financing of sports venues — a MAYOR reason cited by almost everyone who opposes Steve Benjamin. I had not known that, and I kicked myself for not having asked him about the ballpark during our interview Saturday…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Having sat in several meetings with Kit Smith about issues concerning the in-town neighborhoods, we are hardly a cabal of obstructionists. For one thing, everybody doesn’t agree. For another, we are trying to get something done about the trashy nuisance properties, largely rentals, that are dragging down our neighborhoods, and threatening the actual vibrancy of our city. Kit does her homework–lots of research on what other cities do. She is respectful of everyone present, even those who disagree.

        We do want to slow down some of the go-go development that has not been planned in any sense of the word beyond more is better. Why are we incentivizing student housing that would be built here anyway? The only thing stopping it before was the limit on the number of unrelated persons who could occupy a unit.

        All y’all who live outside the city may think it’s really swell that there are so many new restaurants/events/whatever for you to come to, but we have invested in the city by buying our homes here, the biggest investment most of us will ever make. We have skin in the game. We don’t live in gated exurban Woodcreek Farms (Greater Elgin)–but then again, rumor has it, neither does the mayor.

        and Howard is no one’s puppet. He’s 72, with, as you point out, more years’ experience in municipal affairs than Andy has actual years.

    4. Brad Warthen Post author

      Finally, in a small city like Columbia and for that matter small state like South Carolina, it’s excruciatingly hard to avoid apparent conflicts of interest, if you’re involved in your community at all.

      Here’s one that really snuck up on me…

      A couple of months back, CRC decided to add four members to be named by the board itself. Before that, all CRC members were appointed by either the city, the county or the Columbia Chamber (I’m a Chamber member, originally appointed by the late Ike McLeese). I was on the nominating committee, and two people I advocated for inviting were Warren Bolton and Tige Watts. The rest of the board went along with those, and I personally extended the invitations to them to join us. Both accepted, although as of last week, neither had yet attended his first meeting.

      Arranging this debate was a mad scramble from the moment we started last week.

      Initially, WIS was to be our co-sponsor. Henri and I had a meeting at WIS last Friday, at which we determined the forum would be either Monday the 16th, or Wednesday the 11th. We extended the Monday invitation first, because WIS preferred that (I did not).

      I stepped out into the hall while the meeting was still going on to call a couple of the campaigns and see if they were up for that. (The previous day before my interview with Howard, I had mentioned the possibility of the forum, and he had said he couldn’t do it on Thursday night, which Henri and I had initially preferred.)

      When I went back into the room the meeting had mostly broken up, and Henri turned to me and mentioned what I had forgotten: Tige Watts was joining our board. And Tige Watts is helping run the Duvall campaign — in fact, Tige was Howard’s designated person for working with Jessica Lathren of the Smith campaign on arranging a debate.

      Wow. In the rush to pull this together, I had completely forgotten that.

      So, the next day, at the end of my interview with Andy, I somewhat abashedly brought up the fact that Tige was joining our board. Andy didn’t really have anything to say about that, but he did raise an objection to having the debate on the night before the runoff. (I had thought at this point that everyone was agreed to this, but I had not had that straight from Andy’s mouth.)

      Well, I could only agree with him — I thought Monday night was a bad idea, too.

      So as I was walking away from Starbucks after the interview, I got on the phone to Henri and started the process of trying to move it to Wednesday the 11th.

      We got done, but then some problems came up over and WIS and they had to pull out from doing the debate live. That, and some other complications, led to us losing our moderators, and Henri and I had to do it at the last minute.

      Crazy week…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        But Doug only nominally lives here. He actually lives outside Blythewood, and largely works elsewhere. It’s easy to avoid conflicts of interest that way.

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, note that I’ve now added a link above to the Free Times story about the forum, headlined, “Claws Come Out At Rowdy Council Forum.” An excerpt:

    When asked about what the voting public should think about Benjamin’s endorsement of his campaign, Smith lobbed a strike at Duvall, alluding to Duvall’s chummy relationship with McDowell, who has received support from controversial former longtime City Councilman E.W. Cromartie II.

    “I think Howard will agree with me that Mayor Benjamin has no more control over my campaign than Cromartie has over [Duvall’s],” Smith said, drawing a strong verbal reaction from the audience and an “Amen” from Bishop. “We are both independent thinkers and we are both finding ways to serve our communities.”

    Smith strongly stated that he “gladly” accepted Benjamin’s endorsement, and added that, while he doesn’t agree with Benjamin on everything — including using public funds to build Spirit Communications Park on Bull Street — he “truly believes” the mayor is trying to push the city forward.

    “It’s not about who’s ‘controlling’ you, it’s about who supports you in your vision,” Smith said.

    Duvall countered, saying Smith is mistaken if he thinks an endorsement from the mayor doesn’t link them together, in a sense.

    “I’m sure that Andy doesn’t think Mayor Benjamin has any ties to him now that he has gotten the endorsement, but that is being a little bit naive, and showing his 36 years of age,” Duvall, 72, said. “When Mayor Benjamin wants a vote on City Council, he will have a vote from both Aaron and Andy, because he has endorsed them.”

    Smith quickly shot back at that.

    “These conspiracy theories about the powerful Mayor Benjamin and how he’s gonna push us around, they just don’t hold water,” the Nickelodeon leader said. …

    1. Doug Ross

      “I’m sure that Andy doesn’t think Mayor Benjamin has any ties to him now that he has gotten the endorsement, but that is being a little bit naive, and showing his 36 years of age,”

      That’s an old man’s answer. It’s the answer given by a closed minded person who thinks he knows it all because he’s past normal retirement age.

      Did Smith question Duvall’s inability to connect with the younger people of Columbia because he’s too old?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t recall whether he addressed that in the debate, but here’s how he described his constituency in our interview Saturday:

        I asked him how he defined that base, and he said it included LGBT voters, the arts community, those 50 and under and young professionals….

        … meaning, of course, that Howard is NOT the candidate of younger voters and the rest…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *