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So many candidates, so little time

July 16, 1998

Bob MaginnisIn answer to questions from several would-be elected officials about who's going to hold candidate forums - and if so, when - this week I spoke to officials at the League of Women Voters, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Antietam Cable TV.

The good news is that all have plans to do something. The bad news is that nobody yet has figured out what to do with a 29-member field for the board of County Commissioners. To give each candidate only one question, with two minutes to answer it, would take up an hour, not counting the time spent traveling to and from the microphone. I've got an idea how it might be handled, but first let me tell you what's firmed up at this point.

The chamber has scheduled two forums, both after the Sept. 15 primary. The first will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 7 a.m. and will feature the candidates for Washington County Commissioner. The next will be held Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7 a.m. and will feature candidates for the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. Both will be taped for later telecast by Antietam Cable TV.

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Just where the events will be held, and how much they'll cost to attend are unknown at this point, according to Fred Teeter, the chamber's executive director. Teeter says the chamber is seeking corporate sponsors to make the events more affordable for the public, but nothing is firm at this point.

Cindy Garland, Antietam Cable's director of special projects, says that they had to schedule the dates early, even though no sites are set yet, because the time slots in September and October fill up quickly.

The cable system does not want to host any events itself, Garland said, but does want to provide a community service by taping and rebroadcasting other organizations' forums.

As for the Washington County League of Women Voters, League member Cookie McDowell said that the league is considering sponsoring two events in cooperation with a government class at Hagerstown Community College.

"We know it's going to happen, but that's about all we know about it right now," McDowell said.

"Everybody will be included, if it's held before the primary, and it will be an unbiased, issue-oriented forum," she said.

The League will also publish a voters' guide, she said, but the precise publication date isn't known at this point either.

"At our next board meeting on August 12, we'll make some of these decisions," she said.

McDowell said that because the local chapter of the league was just reactivated in January, it probably won't do more than a couple of events this year.

"We are always contacted closer to the election by various groups to run these things. I don't know if we are going to be able to take full responsibility for running a lot of candidate forums, but we might be able to provide some help to them," she said.

That leaves the question of how to deal with the Washington County Commissioner candidates. When I covered the County Commissioners' race in 1974, when 38 candidates filed, my pre-primary wrap-up story was 96 inches long.

The dilemma is the same now as it was then: How will candidates without the name recognition of the incumbents catch the public's attention long enough to tell their story? And just as important, if no forums are held prior to the primary, how will voters get a chance to see the newcomers in action?

That's important because when a candidate gets two minutes to answer a question, you can tell who's padding their remarks to fill up the time and who's got more to say than they can fit into that small time period. You can also see who's at ease with the public and who can handle the idea that if they win, they're going to be questioned about what they do.

So here's my idea: If potential sponsors find the 29-candidate field too big to deal with in the forum format, try something else instead. Rent the ballrooms of a local hotel like the Venice or the Ramada for an afternoon and allow each candidate to set up a table or a booth and talk one-on-one with any citizens who are interested enough to stop by.

It would be less formal than the traditional candidate event, but if the choice is between doing an afternoon in the ballroom or doing nothing at all, why not try it?

And if anyone has information about upcoming events I haven't noted here, please call me at (301) 7343-5131, ext. 7622, or write to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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