Mayoral Debate Ranges from Serious to Absurd

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Wednesday night’s Sacramento mayoral forum started out with seven candidates … and ended with six. But most of the attention – and questions – focused on only two of them: the current mayor, Heather Fargo, and her top challenger, Kevin Johnson. It was a debate that frequently ranged from the serious to the absurd.

As several audience members pointed out afterwards, this wasn’t your typical debate.

Audience members: “Highly entertaining.” “Whimsical.” “A lot more fun than I thought it would be.” “I didn’t realize we were gonna be in for a comedy show.”
Ben: “Worth the price of admission?”
Audience members: “Absolutely. Totally.”

After all, how often do you see one candidate drop out of the race during his closing statement and endorse the mayor, another sport a Led Zeppelin t-shirt under his unbuttoned blazer on live TV, and a third – Richard Jones – say this about his own wife:

Jones: “I was listening to her talk to her sister the other day on the phone, and she says, ‘I’m not voting for Dick!’”

Despite that and many other absurd moments at the California Museum Wednesday night, the top two candidates each got in a couple of jabs at the other. Early on, Fargo rattled off a stat she’s used a lot so far this campaign. Under her leadership, she said, the city has added 5.5 million square feet of new businesses and housing over the last four years. Johnson then commended her for her service, but said:

Johnson: “Sometimes things happen in spite of somebody and not because of someone. I don’t think that the mayor currently has done a great job of being out there recruiting businesses and being pro-business to create the environment and the climate that we need. I think if you have an aggressive mayor that can attract biz such as IKEA who was considering coming to Sacramento, that would have brought a million dollars of tax revenue and 400 jobs to the Sacramento area.”

Later, Fargo struck back. Asked to name Johnson’s greatest strength and weakness, she said his strength was his strong interest in serving Sacramento. Then, this:

Fargo: “If my weakness is my experience, then I would have to say his weakness is his lack of experience. We’ve never had a mayor before in the city of Sacramento that did not first serve on the City Council. So I think that the city is very complicated. There are a lot of issues which take a lot of experience and a lot of information. You learn that as you go through it, and I think it’s very hard to do on-the-job training.”

Jabs aside, Fargo and Johnson mostly spoke positively and respectfully about their platforms. Each named public safety their highest priority. For Fargo, that meant law enforcement and flood protection. Johnson said he’d tackle the gang issue head-on. Both favor a new arena for the Sacramento Kings, but neither supports using public funds. Most of all, Fargo stressed her accomplishments. She said Sacramento’s made a lot of progress, and wants to continue that work. Johnson said he’s not proud of the city right now, but said with the right leadership, Sacramento could become “so much more.”

The event’s format gave just 30 seconds for every question – and that may have benefitted both top contenders: Fargo was forced to shorten her often long-winded policy answers, and Johnson didn’t have to talk in detail about issues he might not yet have fully mastered. Sacramento State communications professor Barbara O’Connor:

O’Connor: “The two serious candidates, I think, comported themselves very well. They’re very different. If people watched this, they have a clear picture of the difference between the two campaigns and the two people. And I think that’s valuable.”

But several voters who attended the forum say they were leaving it the same way they arrived: undecided. Mary Baxter-Simmons lives in East Sacramento.

Baxter-Simmons: “I came ready to support Kevin Johnson, because I am really tired of the lethargic mess that I feel that the City Council has created. But at this time, I don’t think that he really answered some of the key questions.”

And unless that changes, says Midtown resident Dairl Helmer:

Helmer: “I guess voters will have to choose the person they know or the person they don’t.”

The forum was sponsored by the Sacramento Bee, News10 and the California Museum.