My only complaint was that more people weren’t there. There were about 60 in the audience, which isn’t terrible, but in the vast Richland Northeast auditorium, that looked pretty sparse.
The candidates, Democrat Mia McLeod and Republican Susan Brill, were both quite civil and well-behaved, but not shrinking violets. They asserted themselves. More than once, after they both had answered the question and both had rebutted, they asked for more time, so I gave them another round of rebuttal. I think rules should be flexible, as long as order is maintained. I’ll not have any debate I moderate turn into the ugly spectacles we see between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — if I can help it. Harrumph.
Of course, you can’t always help it, and visions of this debate devolving into a scene from Lord of the Flies caused me to be more nervous yesterday than I think I’ve ever been before moderating a debate. I’ve just seen so much chaos on TV this year, I wondered whether it had set an uncivilized precedent. I could hear the nervousness in my own voice at the outset of the forum, but once we were engaged and we’d interacted a bit, I calmed down. (It was kind of like my wrestling days in high school. I always hated, hated, HATED the circling around at the start of a bout — it made me super apprehensive, not knowing what was going to happen. But once my opponent and I had a grip on each other, I settled down and knew what to do.)
Interestingly, I actually had to stop Susan Brill a couple of times when she interjected during Rep. McLeod’s time, telling her to wait her turn. That made me feel pretty foolish, since I had earlier asked her whether she was assertive enough to be effective in the Senate. (This was a companion question to asking Mia whether her abrasive communication style would work in the collegial Senate. I saw them as sort of opposites on the assertiveness scale — Mia too hot, Susan too cold.)
Only once did the audience get out of hand. Ms. McLeod was speaking when suddenly a man’s voice boomed from the audience something along the lines of Wait, are you trying to say… Everyone turned to stare in that direction — I couldn’t see him for the stage lights. I cut in immediately with something like, No, sir! We are not going to do that… I said he should write his question on a 3X5 card like everybody else, and pass it to Community Relations Council Executive Director Henri Baskins. To his credit, he complied. (As I said that, I knew I probably wouldn’t get to his question, because I had plenty of good questions — many more than I had time for — in front of me already, and I thought polite people’s questions should have precedence. But as it happened, Henri passed his question to me and, deciding I may have implied that I would ask his question, I made it the last one in the program.)
Were there any serious gaffes? Not really, although Ms. Brill got a pretty snarky reaction to her assertion — in trying to prove that the Richland Two school board of which she is a member provides all the district’s schools what they need, without favoritism — that the board had provided Ms. McCleod’s children’s high school with… wait for it… Astroturf for their football field.
At this point, y’all are saying, “Where’s the substance? You’re talking about the style.” Well, that’s the thing: When I’m moderating, I find it impossible to take notes. I’m too busy with the forms — making sure the rules are followed, watching the timekeeper, trying to keep up with what the candidates are saying even as I sort through the 3X5 cards from the audience trying to pick the next question.
But here are my prepared questions — I got to all but one — and a very brief summary of what I remember them saying in response. Sorry I can’t do better:
- I think most voters in the district are sorry to see Sen. Joel Lourie ending his distinguished career in the state Senate. He has played a leadership role on a number of issues of statewide importance. I’d like to ask each of you, to what extent to you intend to follow through on Sen. Lourie’s initiatives, and what sorts of issues are you likely to stress that he has not? Both said they would follow through on his issues. Mia mentioned DSS reform in particular. She also said one issue she would work on that she didn’t think Joel had done enough on was gender pay equity.
- We’ve had the opportunity to observe both candidates in public office for a number of years. I’d like to ask a question of each of you regarding your personal leadership styles. Ms. McLeod, you have been a very active and energetic advocate on a number of controversial local issues. You sometimes have a forceful, assertive style. Your critics say it’s too forceful, and unnecessarily alienates people. Your supporters say you’re a breath of fresh air, and exactly what’s needed. You’re running to be a part of the state Senate, a body that prides itself on its collegiality. My question is, how effective do you think your approach will be in that body? She had said in opening remarks that she was “a fighter,” so I reworded this to reflect that. She maintained that she had nothing to apologize for, and cited her ability, for instance, to work across the aisle with Republicans.
- Ms. Brill, I have almost the opposite question to ask of you. In many ways your leadership style seems the opposite of your opponent’s. We seldom see you stepping out and making headlines in the same forceful way that Ms. McLeod does. Some might see your approach as more passive. Our state, and Richland County, have a number of very contentious, controversial issues lying before them. My question of you is, are you assertive enough to lead on these issues in an effective manner? She argued that she was, too, a leader, although it seems in retrospect (my memory could be playing tricks) that she had to go back to her time on county council years ago to come up with good examples.
- As I said, you are both experienced officeholders. Ms. Brill has gained a perspective on education and on local government that many members of our state Senate may lack. And Ms. McLeod well knows that the House can see things very differently from the way senators do. I’d like to ask each of you, what will you take from your specific experience in office that will make you a better senator? Sorry. I know they both had fairly substantive answers to this, but I honestly can’t recall the specifics
- Let’s talk about the Richland County Recreation Commission. After a year of upheaval in which many residents of the county began to despair of seeing the matter addressed meaningfully, we have recently seen movement, in part because of stands taken by the legislative delegation. But what has happened falls far short of what lawmakers have demanded. What should happen next, and what would you do as a senator to make it happen? I didn’t feel like either fully answered this, which may be because I wasn’t specific enough about what I meant. Mia sort of leaped ahead to answer Question 7, saying she would change state law to make lawmakers able to remove commissioners. She also noted that she thought the governor had all the information she needed to act. I think Susan also spoke of broader remedies. I considered asking the question again, demanding to know what they think should happen with the problem commissioners who haven’t quit, but I had a lot of subjects I wanted to get to, and moved on.
- Here’s a question near and dear to the CRC and its mission: The Recreation Commission issue is like many in Richland County, including on the Richland Two school board. It often breaks along racial lines. Things can get pretty ugly. Even Sen. Lourie, after all his years – and those of his father before him – of leading on social justice issues, has had the race card flung at him. How can we move forward on these difficult issues, which are tough enough without the painful ingredient of racial tension? How would you further communication to achieve the understanding needed to get everyone working together? Mia got slightly defensive on this, and defended herself well by going back to her leadership on the Election Commission debacle, when hers was the loudest voice calling for reform, and saying failing to run an election competently has nothing at all to do with race. (At some point in the debate — I don’t recall if it was now or later — there was some back-and-forth about Mia having injected herself into the incident at Spring Valley last year, something Brill supporters have decried as inappropriate.
- One more related to the Recreation Commission. The central political problem it poses is that while the legislative delegation can appoint its members, lawmakers can’t remove them, even if the delegation can itself come to agreement on something so difficult. This, along with hundreds of Special Purpose Districts across our state, is a vestige of the Legislative State, of a time when state legislators ran everything on the local level in their communities. The SPDs just did not go away when the Home Rule Act was passed in the 70s. What should be done about these hundreds of unaccountable little governments called special purpose districts, and will you lead on addressing the situation if elected? Neither seemed as interested in taking this on as I would be, although Susan may have been more willing than Mia — I really can’t recall now. I just remember being disappointed, and moving on.
- Let’s talk about infrastructure. Even before the floods of a year ago, our state was struggling to figure out how to maintain its vast network of roads, and failing to agree. Then came the floods, with all those dams failing right here in this district. The damage to dams, roads, bridges and such landmarks as the Columbia Canal was tremendous, and we had not nearly recovered from all that damage when Hurricane Matthew came along and did further harm. What should South Carolina do to address its infrastructure challenge, for the safety and economic development of our state? Both decried the situation, but neither really offered a long-term solution for paying for infrastructure. At some point — but I think it was later — Mia mentioned raising the gas tax, and if I remember correctly, Susan did not disagree. (Anyone who was there, please jump in and correct my memory if I get it wrong.)
- Let’s switch to taxes. Speaker Lucas has a committee looking at our tax system, so some pretty big potential changes COULD be before the General Assembly soon. I want to ask about the LAST big change lawmakers made to state law, 10 years ago. I refer to Act 388, which removed the burden for supporting public school operations from homeowners and placed it on a combination of business property and an increased sales tax. This has had a number of unintended consequences, such as stifling business, and people who can’t afford to own their homes paying higher rents, and schools and local governments not being able to raise the money they need to operate. Should ACT 388 be maintained as it is, repealed or amended? And if amended, how? Mia said repeal. I think Susan’s answer was more nuanced, but I don’t remember the details.
- South Carolina has a vast army of state retirees, including, I would expect, some in this very room. How would you address the unfunded liability of state retirement systems? I remember nothing at all about their responses.
- Here’s something that over the years at the newspaper I ALWAYS asked candidates about. We have before us, as usual, a Democrat and a Republican. I want to ask each of you, how important is party to you? To what extent will you follow the party line, and to what extent will you go your own way? I skipped this question, as after asking some audience questions, I was running out of time.
- South Carolina opted not to expand Medicaid when the Affordable Care Act was implemented. Was that the right course? What should our state do about healthcare going forward? Sorry. I forget the details. Dang.
OK, that was a pretty pointless exercise. I just don’t remember enough — and worse, I tend to remember Mia’s answers better than Susan’s. Not that Susan’s were bad; at the time I felt like she was addressing the questions well enough. I just can’t remember them as well.
Dang. Well, y’all should have been there.
Oh, wait — people want to know about zingers. I remember one in particular aimed by Mia at Susan. And it may have been the one thing Mia said that illustrated the unnecessary abrasiveness that her critics cite. One of the audience questions was about Mia’s $49,500 contract with the city of Columbia for communications consulting. That’s the subject of an attack ad from the Senate Republican Caucus, and a sore point for the Democrat (and it wasn’t among my questions because I knew it would come up).
She used it as an occasion to lash out at her opponent as a woman who had never worked outside the home, and didn’t understand people who had to go out and earn a living. She also hit her for failing to distance herself from Donald Trump — something I was about to ask about (another audience question).
Ms. Brill responded accurately that she had nothing to do with the attack ad; that was the caucus. I found her answer about Trump less satisfactory, but let’s be fair: I’m never satisfied with anyone who won’t say she’ll vote for Clinton — which is, of course, the only way of stopping Trump.
Yeah, I know; this was a lousy report. But I just don’t know how to moderate and take proper notes at the same time…