That’s all people ever seem to ask candidates about. What will the magic wand look like that they will wave over the city to make violent crime and high taxes disappear.
When I interviewed the four viable mayoral candidates, I began with a question about their favorite things in Hartford. Too often, interviews, forums, and debates are framed in a negative way. Hartford is terrible. It’s broken. It’s unusually violent and should be pitied. Now, who will be the superhero to rescue us? And, who will we blame when this superhero turns out to be merely human? It’s a bogus approach. No place is perfect, including Hartford, but it is not a cesspool either. So, I thought that by framing this differently, I could do two things: (1) encourage candidates to be positive, and (2) find out quickly who lacks civic pride. Using that as a base, I wanted to continue in the positive. Rather than finding out how they would “fix” the city, I asked how they would “boost” it.
The third question is much more specific. It came about by asking a few Real Hartford readers what they would want answered by the candidates. Not surprising, blight came up again and again. Violent crime is certainly serious, but for most residents, it is not a constant threat. Blighted properties, on the other hand, are in every neighborhood of the city; they exist at three in the morning or in the afternoon. I would not hesitate to categorize blight as a type of crime, depending on the severity of it. In the phrasing of this question, I wanted the cause of blight acknowledged because it does not just happen. The cause of blight is often, but not always, absentee landlords — those who own the property but do not actually live there.
Because a campaign is an extended job interview, I thought I would ask why these candidates believe themselves to be qualified. This is not the same as asking why they should be mayor — a question that encourages promises.
Finally, I wanted to know how someone seeking power would stay down to earth. Some politicians — local and national — have earned reputations for surrounding themselves with yes-men, ignoring criticism by not watching/reading the news, and being available only to the elite. Part of this could be answered without even asking. When I requested interviews, I took note of who responded, who had campaign managers, how their campaign managers dealt with me, and how difficult it was to set up time to talk. Three of the four candidates responded (one directly, two through managers) within twelve hours. The other candidate’s manager did not respond for several days, missed one deadline, and then requested an extension, which was denied due to publication deadline. But all did respond and remained remarkably focused on answering the questions. One candidate scheduled a 30 minute interview. Two others had no time limits that they announced to me, and one was generous enough to chat for a few hours. Two expressed thanks for the opportunity by sending an email afterwards. The person I expected to be least accessible ended up being the most.
Coming out of it, I can say a few things. If you create an environment where mudslinging is considered the norm, then it should be no shock when it occurs; that is to say, the trash talking was at an absolute minimum. Candidates are capable of being positive. They all showed themselves to be intelligent and thoughtful. We do not need to settle for dirty politics.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
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