A couples of months ago, Annise Parker demanded that there be only one Mayoral debate, and it be open to all candidates. Because you can’t have a debate without the incumbent, she ultimately got her way. That debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Public Television station, was held last night. In a word, it was a disaster. But that is exactly what Annise Parker wanted, so she was truly the big winner last night, whether the viewers knew it or not.
The debate was two hours long, divided amongst the six candidates who showed up: Parker, Ben Hall, Eric Dick, Keryl Douglas, Don Cook and Michael Fitzsimmons. Yes, THAT Fitzsimmons, the de Blassio style communist. The result was that, factoring in the time it takes for questions and other formalities, each candidate only received a little more than 15 minutes of speaking time. I reckon that none of the candidates, including the Mayor, used the time efficiently or effectively. But again, perhaps that was the Mayor’s strategy.
One by one, I will examine how the candidates performed in reverse-order of their performance. First, Fitzsimmons surprised me by actually showing up. I had a recurring joke with my friends about how many times he would say something like “solidarity” or “revolution,” and, needless to say, we were not disappointed. As an open member of the Socialist Workers Party, Fitzsimmons is about as left wing as they get in Houston. It is clear that his campaign is symbolic in nature, as he dodged direct answers of most of the policy questions, instead focusing on broad themes about “working people” or “capitalism.”
Then, Don Cook. The pauses that Cook took mid-sentence were excruciatingly painful to suffer through. While I have long thought that this individual’s heart is in the right place, the televised debate proved, to borrow Lorne Michael’s old cliche, that he is “not ready for prime time.” Cook did not go as far as Fitzsimmons, but be flirted with increasingly extreme and socialist positions that are severely out of whack from mainstream Houston. These outlandish ideas included making bus far free, a horribly asinine suggestion.
Coming in fourth would be Eric Dick, the token Republican in the race. Dick lacked the organization and –much like Cook– the charisma to be considered a viable candidate on television. As I predicted, he brought up that tired old, stupid cliche about the Mayor’s limousine. He also talked a great deal how the city needs to increase many basic services while cutting taxes, and gave no suggestions about what else to eliminate from the city budget besides the Mayor’s expense account. In my humble opinion, it was an amateur suggestion from an amateur politician.
Dick’s other problem was that he used the first “this will be my top priority” for virtually everything he talked about. Public safety? Top priority. Infrastructure? Top priority. Quality of life? Top priority. You get the point. He also repeated the baldfaced lie about Parker and dumpster diving ordinances first raised in his robocall.
However, despite these shortcomings, Dick distinguished himself quite well as the only Republican in the race. He unequivocally opposed the SafeClear program, as well as the University rail line. Time will tell if appealing only to Republicans is a good strategy, but history suggests not.
Coming in third place, Ben Hall. He presented himself as a respectable adversary, with some divergent positions from the Mayor. Most notably, he also opposes the University Rail line. While these are good ways to separate one’s self from the incumbent, they are somewhat unpopular positions. As Hall has done many times, he flirted with a good attack on the Parker, whether that be on layoffs or crime or even corruption, but stopped well short of the concrete substance needed.
Hall also drudged up some outlandish positions of his own. Most notably, he came up with an idea –possibly on the spot– to retain floodwater in underground caverns. Sure, that sounds cool, but it is truly impossible to achieve. An Aggie engineer explains why this is such a bad idea.
In second place, then, was Keryl Douglas. She arrived ready to compete at this debate. Douglas would be a pretty good candidate, from what I observed in last night’s debate, if she would have been running in an open election. While she took plenty of cheap shots at Hall, I have a hard time seeing where she thinks Annise Parker went wrong. Those of y’all who are familiar with me know that I have a deeply-held belief that non-open elections should be referendums on the incumbent. Douglas, like the other candidates, failed to explain to me why to vote against the incumbent.
That leaves us with Mayor Parker, who I crown the winner of this debate–by default, mainly. Parker disappointed in a few of her own questions, however. First, she gave a somewhat weak answer on a question about LGBT rights, and she took no opportunities to correct the record about some falsehoods spewed by the other candidates. about her.
In one of the key differences between the video and audio (I listened to the audio last night; skimmed the video this morning), I saw that, while all candidates stood while they talked, only one candidate sat when she was not talking: Parker. This is reminiscent of a ruler or a Judge, holding a higher stature over the mere “commoners” amongst her.
All in all, the real loser was Houstonians, or anyone who attempted to see a real policy debate. Simply put, there were too many people on the stage. As the editorial board suggested in August, the most effective debates exclude the fringe candidate. This should have simply been a contest between Parker and Hall (and possibly Dick). The Mayor did not want this to happen, however, because it would give more legitimacy to Hall. Just between the two of them, Hall becomes Parker’s equal. However, among the six of them, it just becomes a general theme of Parker versus the loons opposed to her.
This was the Parker campaign’s strategy all along. From a purely political point of view, it was a wildly successful strategy that worked out well for them. From an equitable point of view, however, it was wrong.