Mayoral Forums Are Boring, But They Don’t Have To Be

Ten candidates delivering 90-second mini-speeches is going to make for a very long, boring summer. Let's fix this.

Photo by Jason Schwartz

Photo by Jason Schwartz

Wednesday was a big day for Boston’s fledgling mayor’s race: In the morning, there was an eight-candidate forum at the Boston Society of Architects and, in the evening, there was a 10-candidate forum on education at the Brooke Charter School in Roslindale.

Around midday, I ran into mayoral candidate and state representative Marty Walsh walking out of an event for LGBT seniors and asked him how the morning’s affair went. He shrugged and said with so many candidates, “It’s hard to get into a flow.” The moderator asked a question and then you just had to wait and wait and wait, he said. I suggested it was a bit like playing a basketball game, but never getting the ball. He agreed, but said it was worse—like being the fourth option on the Heat, behind superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. I joked that the key was figuring out how to be LeBron. Emphatically, Walsh replied, “I want to be the LeBron in this race!”

I don’t believe Marty Walsh can jump that high, but you get the idea: It’s tough to have a good, robust debate with so many candidates. That much was clear at Wednesday night’s education forum, held in front of a standing room only crowd inside the Brooke school’s gym. The moderator would ask a question, and then you had to sit through often repetitive 90-second mini-speeches from each of the 10 candidates. It was difficult for anyone on stage to engage with each other or get too deep into any issue. Suffice it to say, all of the candidates are for good schools and want the next superintendent to be top-notch. Candidates Felix Arroyo, Charles Yancey, and Rob Consalvo were against raising the charter cap, Mike Ross and Charlotte Golar-Richie said they’d be OK with it in some situations but urged us to proceed cautiously, Walsh said charters are “part of the solution” but didn’t explicitly say he wanted the cap lifted, and John Connolly, Bill Walczak, Dan Conley, and John Barros were all for lifting the cap. Just about everybody supported a longer school day, but while most of the candidates tried to strike a conciliatory note with the teachers union, Connolly, a city councilor, was most emphatic about going to the mattresses with the union in order to get those extra hours.

Boom, I just saved you an hour-and-a-half watching the video. (Adam Gaffin also has a more thorough recap at UniversalHub.)

It was a pretty dry affair—it couldn’t help but be, given the format. So how do we fix this? There are going to be about a zillion forums leading up to the preliminary election on September 24 (perhaps almost as many forums as candidates), and it’d be great to see organizers experiment with the form. How about we have candidates answer questions in shifts of three, so that way they can get into legit discussions on the issues? Or maybe we could have them face-off 1-on-1 on issues that we know that they differ. I’m sure smarter people than me have better ideas. But if all of the forums are going to be 10 people sitting on a dais reenacting the Last Supper, it’s going to be a long, boring summer.