Defin­ing de­bates down­ward

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - PERSPECTIVE - ▶ cseiler@time­sunion.com 518454-5619

Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo is down on de­bates. Again.

“These de­bates are not what they used to be,” he said Thurs­day in a visit to the Syracuse Post Stan­dard’s ed­i­to­rial board, just hours be­fore the other gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates gath­ered at the Col­lege of Saint Rose for a 90-minute de­bate spon­sored by the League of Women Vot­ers.

You can watch that de­bate on­line; it was a sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sion that gave Repub­li­can Marc Moli­naro, Green can­di­date Howie Hawkins, Lib­er­tar­ian Larry Sharpe and Stephanie Miner of the Serve Amer­ica Move­ment a proper fo­rum to lay out their re­spec­tive plat­forms. (In the in­ter­ests of full dis­clo­sure, I was asked to serve on the panel of ques­tion­ers but had to beg off due to a pre­vi­ously sched­uled con­gres­sional de­bate the same night.)

Cuomo said in Syracuse that he prefers tak­ing part in “tele­town halls,” in which can­di­dates take calls from the pub­lic — or peo­ple claim­ing to be mem­bers of the pub­lic — that can be pre­screened by his flunkies to weed out pain-in-the-keis­ter sub­jects. His ad­min­is­tra­tion has over re­cent years es­ca­lated its use of a sim­i­lar tech­nique for con­fer­ence calls with re­porters; the gover­nor has largely cur­tailed hold­ing press con­fer­ences at the Capi­tol, a large build­ing with many rooms ca­pa­ble of hold­ing such gath­er­ings.

Warm­ing to the sub­ject in Syracuse, Cuomo de­nounced the more tra­di­tional de­bate for­mat in much the same way that Johnny Rot­ten used to de­ride cor­po­rate rock ’n’ roll: “Peo­ple have such sus­pi­cion about these pre-or­ches­trated sit­u­a­tions,” Cuomo said of those squaresville de­bates in which re­porters well­versed on the is­sues ask ques­tions the can­di­dates might not be ex­pect­ing. “They want to ask their own ques­tions. My cam­paign has been about touch­ing as many peo­ple as I can, com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly.”

This episode of “Touched By a Cuomo” was a re­run of his 2014 kvetch that de­bates some­times do “a dis­ser­vice to democ­racy” — a likely ref­er­ence to 2010’s clown­ish seven-can­di­date gu­ber­na­to­rial de­bate on Long Is­land that in­cluded Cuomo and his Repub­li­can op­po­nent Carl Pal­adino, who got up in the mid­dle of the de­bate to an­swer the call of na­ture. Also on the bill was Jimmy Mcmil­lan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, who came to the event dressed to play bass in a Prince cover band, and for­mer pro­curess Kristin Davis.

This time around, Cuomo pro­fessed sim­i­lar dis­ap­point­ment over the qual­ity of the Oct. 23 CBS de­bate that was, is and shall be the only one-on-one de­bate be­tween him­self and his Repub­li­can op­po­nent Marc Moli­naro. That en­counter, poorly mod­er­ated and staged like a round­table dis­cus­sion, quickly de­volved into an I’m-rub­ber-you’re-glue im­broglio that gen­er­ated pre­cious

lit­tle ed­i­fy­ing pol­icy dis­cus­sion.

Cuomo’s crit­i­cism, of course, was akin to a guy who douses a barn in kerosene and fills it with high­way flares and oily rags, and then ex­presses re­gret when it burns to the ground. The gover­nor pretty much en­sured his en­counter with Moli­naro would be a mess by wait­ing un­til vir­tu­ally the last minute to sign aboard, after ig­nor­ing ear­lier de­bate in­vi­ta­tions from a host of or­ga­ni­za­tions and me­dia out­lets that might have pro­vided a less fast-food fo­rum.

It’s been a lousy sea­son for tra­di­tional de­bates, de­spite the yeoman work done by pros like Liz Ben­jamin of Spec­trum News and Er­rol Louis of NY1, who took part in gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent fo­rums with the ma­jor-party can­di­dates for comptroller and at­tor­ney general. That pair was on deck to mod­er­ate an Oct. 21 matchup be­tween U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand and her Repub­li­can op­po­nent Chele Far­ley, which Gil­li­brand pulled out of 50 hours be­fore showtime rather than cross a “vir­tual picket line” planned by the In­ter­na­tional Brother­hood of Elec­tric Work­ers, which is in a long­stand­ing la­bor dis­pute with Spec­trum/ny1’s par­ent, Char­ter Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. (More dis­clo­sure: I was part of a brief last-ditch ef­fort to re­vive the de­bate, a fu­tile en­deavor that im­peded an oth­er­wise lovely din­ner with my wife and ended with Skid­more prop­erly de­cid­ing not to pro­ceed in the ab­sence of a broad­cast part­ner.)

IBEW’S dis­pute was a rather flex­i­ble im­ped­i­ment: The union did not protest sev­eral of Spec­trum/ny1’s other de­bates, in­clud­ing a matchup be­tween 19th Con­gres­sional District op­po­nents Rep. John Faso and Demo­crat An­to­nio Del­gado that took place two days after Gil­li­brand bowed out. But it did man­age to re­duce the num­ber of sta­tions that could pester Cuomo with a de­bate in­vi­ta­tion he didn’t want to ac­cept.

There must be a bet­ter way. On the fed­eral level, there is the Com­mis­sion on Pres­i­den­tial De­bates, a wholly in­de­pen­dent en­tity that takes it upon it­self to or­ga­nize pres­i­den­tial and vi­cepres­i­den­tial de­bates, which it has done ev­ery four years since 1988. It would be worth­while to see a sim­i­lar or­ga­ni­za­tion formed on the state level, prefer­ably be­fore the 2020 elec­tion cy­cle revs up. Stock it with unim­peach­able pub­lic fig­ures and trusted jour­nal­ists, bring in me­dia part­ners and set uni­form pro­to­cols. And if the politi­cians try to weasel out, call them on it.

The gover­nor is cor­rect to say that his de­bate with Moli­naro with a mess. But sug­gest­ing that there­fore all de­bates are worth­less is like ar­gu­ing that Randy Ma­cho Man Sav­age and The Un­der­taker aren’t suitable am­bas­sadors of the ancient sport of Greco-ro­man wrestling.

Casey seiler

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