The Burroughs School forum Tuesday night, sponsored by the South Toledo Neighborhood Alliance, was either the weirdest or the most refreshing mayoral debate thus far.
I’m not sure which.
It was over in less than an hour. The candidates got 30 seconds to answer each question, most of which were complex and took more than twice that time to ask. And most of the questions took the form of a pledge — something the candidates had to promise to do for the neighborhood.
Moreover, the candidates were supposed to answer with a simple yes or no to each question/pledge.
Both Mayor Mike Bell and Councilman Mike Collins quickly got the idea: Just say yes.
You had to admire the economy and the shamelessness of the whole thing.
And the questions forced the candidates to be concise. After awhile, even Mr. Collins got into the spirit and started to give five and six word answers, instead of five or six paragraph ones.
But it was also a bit unseemly.
Surely there is more to democracy, to leadership and citizenship, than: What have you done for me lately and what comes after that?
Some political scientists would say, not at all. Who gets what, when, and how, is all that politics is about. Nothing more.
But that’s naivete masquerading as cynicism.
There must be a moderating force — call it civility, call it empathy, call it patience (a word the mayor uses a lot in this campaign), or politics is just a series of muggings.
There is also something really wrong with the notion that all political problems can be reduced to simple answers. Sometimes the mayor hints at this.
To be fair, a lot of people in South Toledo have gotten the short end of the stick pretty regularly for the last 40 years. So you cannot blame people for feeling impatient and wanting to hold a political event in which there is less hot air and more signing on the dotted line.
Mr. Collins has a series of ideas, while the mayor has one big idea (big business brings money). Some of Mr. Collins’ ideas are simplistic and some he simplifies to sell. “Tidy Towns” will not end blight, and more cops will not end crime. But both are actions rather than reactions. That’s why Mr. Collins loses a lot of battles in this race but may be winning the war.
The other reasons are neighborhoods and demographics. Mr. Collins is very good in neighborhoods. He understands what makes a neighborhood and what makes neighborhood pride. He was actually superb in Birmingham in East Toledo, Monday night, where the format was loose and made for an interesting person-to-person exchange with the audience. It was a perfect fit of politician and constituency.
I am not sure Mr. Bell understands neighborhoods. And Mr. Collins has begun to base his whole campaign on them.
As for demographics, they are destiny. One reason Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney is that America is beginning to be more like him, and not much of it was ever like the Mittster.
Mr. Collins is an Irish cop who went back to school. He is quintessentially working class, a union guy, old school.
He’s also more than that. He became a college professor — a man who said, the other night, that as he ages, he sees more and more gray.
Politics is the constant simplification of complex personalities and problems. But the complexity always resurfaces.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.