Do debates advance the debate?


It was debate day in Toledo, and a very long day for the candidates for mayor.

The day began with an 8:30 breakfast minidebate at the United Way — five minutes for all eight candidates on the ballot.

The scene was a conference room and the props were fruit, danish, and much caffeine. Most of the candidates stuck to generalities, glittering and otherwise.

Mike Collins did manage to talk about how the Department of Neighborhoods is broken and has to be totally rethought. Joe McNamara had the most passion and the most data at his command. He was on his way to winning the debate.

But then Opal Covey, a quadrennial crank candidate, said that domestic violence exists because young women pick the wrong men and they do that because they fail to suppress sexual desire. Just when it looked like we might have a debate, we hit an all-time low and the event ended.

The evening debate, at the UT law school, was co-sponsored by the Toledo Fair Housing Center and preceded by a minilecture and a short film on fair housing. Both were fine but some folks in the audience felt a bit hijacked. UT law school graduates present were grateful for the comfortable new seats in McQuade Auditorium.

This time, the candidates got seven minutes each instead of five, and a shot at five good audience questions. But there was no chance for the candidates to interact. This forum had the “top five candidates” — Mike Bell, Anita Lopez, Joe McNamara, Mike Collins, and Alan Cox.

Mr. McNamara was, again, lively and substantive. Even Republicans say of Mr. McNamara, “He would be a good mayor.” But he looks like man who sees his chance slipping away. Part of his energy is passion and part is desperation.

Mr. Collins, on the other hand has the look of a man who just drew a couple good cards. It has crossed a few minds, including his own, that if he can place third, why not second? He was confident and hard hitting in both forums. If Opal Covey held the crowd rapt in horror in the morning, Mr. Collins, for a moment at UT, held it rapt with his Irish story telling. He told about a little boy standing up to discrimination in Toledo many years ago. He was the boy.

Anita Lopez is bad in these debates. She babbles. She is unkind to words. They come and go like particles of dust. She flings words around the room as if they are filled with helium. She throws them out and watches them float until she unleashes some more. But none are tied to thoughts or to each other. It makes your hair hurt.

Ms. Lopez might be a fine county auditor. But is this really why union members support her with such ardor? It's hard to believe. True, she is not Mike Bell. But neither are Mr. Collins nor Mr. McNamara. There must be something we do not see or know.

Mr. Bell is also bad at these affairs. But for a totally different, in fact opposite, reason: He hates empty words. He hates what they call, in his trade, “talking points.” He tends to say, at these events, that we should try to be “real.” People look at him quizzically. Mr. Bell likes people and he likes municipal government. He really does not like this part of politics.

After these two events, I can't say I blame him. Next week: Some thoughts on how we might make the debates better.

Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.