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Seeing the candidates live: There's nothing else like it

August 26, 2006

For those who missed them, the two candidate forums held at Hagerstown Community College on Aug. 16 and 17 were great events. They were televised live and will be repeated on Antietam Cable Channel 19 at dates and times listed at the end of this column.

The Herald-Mail and its partners deserve kudos for doing a first-ever "up close and personal" with candidates representing both parties in races for Washington County political offices.

As expected, those running for school board were nonpartisan, representing neither party.

Every county teacher and parent would have done well to hear what these candidates had to say about their plans for our children. It was refreshing that none talked much about more money. This may have related to big dollars the governor has put into education.

The first forum night, Aug. 16, Democratic county commission hopefuls numbered 12, Republicans present came to 11. Giving time to 23 people was challenging for event planners, but they managed it well.

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Only two negatives were overheard: One audience member said Democrat and Republican groups were not asked the same set of questions, causing fear that one party got softball questions, the other hardballs. A couple of audience listeners thought some questions were "impossible."

The first of these had to do with ways to eliminate feudin' and fussin' among City Council members and County Commissioners. How in the world, someone asked, could candidates promise to heal personality and political rifts?

A second confusing question related to promoting diversity in the county. Only one candidate gave a usable answer. It pointed to need for a definition of diversity. This candidate said the issue is not only about race. It includes income levels, housing and other matters. How could all this be covered in 90 seconds?

Some audience members' minds were changed by the two forums. A die-hard Republican who went in wanting to see only GOP candidates elected to the County Commission, came out planning to vote for a couple of Democrats.

A Democrat who usually has nothing good to say about Republicans, said he would withhold support for the incumbent State Assembly delegate from District 2C (Hagerstown). Asked why, he said a forum audience should not have to listen to attack statements or outbursts from an attending cheering squad.

The theater had a larger audience the first night than the second. This was too bad as much is always missed by television viewers. For example, viewers did not have the chance to mingle with the audience after the event to pick up bits and pieces of comment and attitudes toward speakers. They also could not see when audience members were interested enough to take notes and when they were not.

An old trick used by Hollywood studios was to have limited release of a film, usually in a neighborhood sneak preview. As people left the theater, a studio employee lingered about the lobby, listening for audience reaction.

A film that failed the "lobby test" was taken back and reworked; in some cases the movie was not given general release at all. In today's world of non-attending television viewers, the lobby test is not as useful, but some of us can't resist trying it anyway.

A thoroughly unscientific set of post-event evaluations, observations is the following. Democrats and Republicans came out about even.

Shining stars were found among some 50 percent of the School Board candidates, including one incumbent. Four commission candidates (two Democrats, two Republicans) offered solid plans.

State's attorney candidates, who had three minutes each, had good ideas but none said anything about ways to help the police. One candidate is known to have had recent serious consideration for a judgeship.

The race for sheriff will be a tough decision for voters. Nearly all - possibly 95 percent - looked outstanding, well informed and 100 percent had a decent command of the English language. In contrast, it was disappointing to find poor grammar among a few School Board hopefuls.

A small boo-boo was committed by the mistress of ceremonies, who provided information about the modest residence of one 2C candidate.

The nature of the candidate's housing was not given for anyone else. On the plus side, the emcee did a great job, with fine audience cooperation, holding to no-applause, silence rules and prohibition against use of personal names.

Hopefully some of the above will be helpful for the television audience and others who could not attend these marvelous events. A loud YES vote is given the Herald-Mail sponsor partners - Antietam Cable, League of Women Voters, and Hagerstown Community College.

(Editor's note: Both forums will be rebroadcast on Antietam Cable channel 19 on the following dates at 8 p.m. each night:

For the forum with the County Commissioners candidates - Tuesday, Aug. 29 and Tuesday, Sept. 5.

For the forum with candidates running for sheriff, state's attorney, Delegate Subdistrict 2C and School Board - Thursday, Aug. 31 and Thursday, Sept. 7.

Both forums will air back-to-back Monday, Sept. 11, beginning at 7 p.m., also on channel 19.)

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