Saturday, August 1, 2009

City Election 2009: In Praise of Skirmishes

We decided to cover Sam Yoon's "town meeting" last week in Mattapan, expecting little more than the snapshot of a campaign in action. But an exchange between Yoon and Mayor Menino's Chief of Staff, Judith Kurland, made the event more two-sided. It was as if, like Rodney Dangerfield at a boxing match, we ended up with a hockey game.

When someone in the audience brought up literature and handbags with the mayor's name given out by the city's Commission on Affairs of the Elderly, there was an opportunity for Yoon to score. To be sure, there's some advertising going on with the hand-outs, and that's more of a problem if it's paid for by city funds instead of campaign money. Does this apply to everything the Commission does, as Yoon comes close to arguing? Isn't there some overlap between gratuitous advertising and the good impression an elected official makes when the administration performs a service? Anyhow, Yoon reached far enough to leave an opening for a counterthrust by Kurland, who--with a deft touch of dramatization--snatched a passable look of tacit agreement from a woman sitting near her in the audience.

For details on the conext behind the exchange, read the article in the Dorchester Reporter by Gintautas Dumcius. There's also a video report on the meeting by Joe Rowland for Neighborhood Network News.

Judging from accounts of the meeting, Yoon made some good impressions, though the exchange with Kurland suggests a need to wage verbal fights more carefully, and maybe to pick battles over something more urgent (even if this topic wasn't initially picked by Yoon).

Kurland's performance, no matter how much it sprang from a genuine sense of indignation, was worthy of a candidate in a town meeting debate. The more that's noticed, the more it makes Yoon appear to be taken seriously, and the more it suggests the debate should be not with a proxy, but between candidates. And if the debate were about other topics?

This minor showdown goes some way to suggest the potential for debates to get people interested in an election. All too often these skirmishes tell us very little that's new (which may very well apply to what happened in Mattapan), and they might even be compared to fights in hockey game--a distraction at best that, on repetition, quickly becomes tiresome. But, in an election year so deprived of face-to-face confrontations between candidates in three-dimensional reality, even a minor skirmish can be refreshing.