Former Montco Dem chairman sees debate firsthand
Marcel Groen, now state chairman, says atmosphere was ‘very respectful’
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. >> Watching Monday night’s first presidential debate from the comfort of your living room is a different experience than watching it from the 10th row of the auditorium.
After more than 20 years in Montgomery County politics, Pennsylvania State Democratic Chairman Marcel Groen was among those in the audience at Hofstra University Monday night, the first time he has ever seen a presidential debate in person.
“You know, you can watch an Eagles game on TV, and you’re comfortable, get a snack, you can watch the re-plays. In some ways, you’re closer to the field,” said Groen. “But you don’t get the atmosphere.”
Despite the hoopla in the national media, the atmosphere at the much-anticipated debate was “very respectful. People listened,” said Groen, who was one of seven Pennsylvanians invited to the debate by the Clinton campaign.
It won’t surprise most readers to learn that what Groen heard, convinced him that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s performance far surpassed that of her opponent, Republican Donald Trump.
Echoing the narrative which has been adopted by the national press, Groen characterized Trump as “unprepared” for the debate.
“As Bush’s former public relations person put it, the bar was set pretty low for Trump and he didn’t clear it; and the bar was set pretty high for Clinton, and she exceeded it,” Groen said in an interview with Digital First Media Tuesday afternoon.
He spoke highly of the performance and substance demonstrated by Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state.
“She was really well prepared. She kept her cool, didn’t interrupt people and stayed above the fray,” Groen said. “She had actual answers to the questions.”
By contrast, Groen had little positive to say about Trump, a New York City real estate magnate, either in terms of his debate performance or his candidacy.
“Trump had a couple of things he wanted to say, and then he was done,” said Groen.
“He wants to cut corporate taxes from 35 to 15 percent, which everyone knows would be an economic disaster, and that was about the only thing of substance he had to say. He interrupted people, was rude and disrespectful and some of the things he said were almost absurd,” he said.
“This debate needed to be about electing a president who we know can walk into the job and make us feel comfortable,” Groen said.
“With the last few people who lost — Romney, McCain, Kerry, Gore, Bob Dole — on election night, I went to bed feeling that whoever won, I might disagree with them on policy, but I would still feel they were competent, decent people who could do the job,” Groen observed. “This election night, I will not sleep easily.”
As it happens, as state party chairman, he is in a position to make a difference in the decision voters have on Nov. 8.
Pennsylvania is one of several battleground states that each candidate must win to be elected.
And, as chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County for 21 years, Groen says he knows how essential southeastern Pennsylvania is to winning the state.
“We’ve got to put up big numbers in the five counties in the Southeast, and in Allegheny County and most of the cities,” said Groen.
And noting that he has never seen a sharply divided electorate, Groen said Democrats need to reach out to those Republicans who are “uneasy with Trump.”
“If you’re talking to someone who is committed to Trump, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “But there are plenty of Republicans who don’t want to vote for Trump, but have never voted for a Democrat before.”
Democrats across the state “need to be talking to those people on a one-onone basis and our job is to make them feel comfortable working with us and we need local people do that,” he said.
One of those people is unlikely to be Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Rob Gleason, who released the following statement Monday night regarding the first presidential debate:
“Donald Trump scored a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in this first presidential debate,” Gleason said. “Voters had a terrific opportunity to compare Hillary Clinton’s big government, special interest agenda with Donald Trump’s vision to create jobs and grow our economy. While Hillary Clinton is running a campaign to maintain the status quo in Washington, Donald Trump is ready to bring much-needed change to the White House.
“This debate will only add to Donald Trump’s growing momentum in Pennsylvania. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania is excited to work harder than ever to elect Donald Trump this November,” Gleason said.
Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, at the Lebanon County Democrats annual Jefferson and Jackson dinner last year.