I stifled the free expression of a political candidate last week while also thwarting the will of the people.
But I enforced the rules agreed to by empowered and educated candidates for political office.
Those are the chances you take when you agree to chair an election meeting.
As I blogged last week, I had agreed to chair the candidates’ meeting last Thursday morning for students at Grant Park High School, a River Heights ward meeting for council candidates incumbent John Orlikow and newcomer Michael Kowalson. It’s the third time I’ve done so at the invitation of one of child the elder’s former teachers.
The format was pretty straightforward. Candidates would have two minutes for an opening statement, order determined by a coin flip, then a dozen students would pose questions, the candidates having up to two minutes each, answering first or second in rotation, then having two minutes each for a closing statement.
The candidates’ camps could have pushed for a bare-knuckles brawl, a debate full of interrupting and shouting and accusations, but they didn’t — they agreed to a civil question and answer format, that’s the format the school accepted, and that’s the format the school asked me to moderate, and if necessary, to enforce.
So things went pretty well during the students’ questions, well-researched and to the point about specific issues. No, I’m not sucking up; both my kids have graduated. A couple of times I had to point out that the format agreed to did not allow candidates to address each other or to interrupt the other.
The meeting was open to the media and to the general public, and the teacher had indicated that the general public could put questions after the student session concluded at the end of period three, which is the start of lunch.
So I outlined all this as I concluded the student session, inviting the kids to stay if they wanted to see real live media scrums in action, and saying I’d give the extra session until 1 p.m. — the school needed its library back, and some of us had to get back to work and to the campaign trail.
In the intermission, one guy in a suit who’d been hanging with Kowalson’s crowd came up, got in my face, and demanded to know how I could offer further questions when Orlikow had left. I pointed out to him that Orlikow was standing five feet behind me, in a media scrum.
A Kowalson campaign worker came up to me and told me with some eagerness that he certainly intended to put a question.
An Orlikow handler came over, pointed out the handful of people still in the school library, went campaign worker, campaign worker, campaign worker as she pointed her finger at individuals. Fighting back the urge to tell her that I’ve been covering politics longer than she’s been alive, I took her information under advisement.
And finally, away we went. Three students had stayed behind to ask additional questions, and then a woman who was opposed to the Harrow/Academy traffic barrier, who was civil and reasonable. But as the session went on, I found myself increasingly needing to intervene and remind the candidates — OK, to remind Kowalson — that they had agreed to the format, and could not address each other or interrupt.
Two TV stations had remained, their cameras rolling.
Then came a question from Garth Steek, a former councillor who had been out of politics since losing a mayoral campaign. He directed a pretty tough question at Orlikow, which is fair enough, both candidates get to answer, but when Orlikow as the first to respond on that particular question started to answer, Steek interrupted him, telling Orlikow that what the candidate was telling the room was not what Orlikow had done. And I had to admonish Steek not to interrupt, and told him to allow Orlikow to speak.
When it came Kowalson’s turn to answer, he turned to Orlikow, and began lecturing him, his voice rising. I intervened, telling Kowalson once again that it was not a debate, and he had to put his response to Steek as questioner and to the audience in general.
Which he did briefly, before turning around to me, and addressing me by name, told me that the people had told him to demand answers from this man, and as he turned towards Orlikow and began to harangue him again, I stood up and intervened.
When you get in this situation, there’s no way to win. I either cave, and allow one person to set aside the agreed rules and act as he and his supporters wish, or I enforce the rules, and with the cameras rolling, prevent the other person’s receiving the treatment that part of the room believes he deserves and that they allege the people are demanding.
With seven minutes to go, I told everyone that I was calling it a day, and that the session was over. Unlike the previous two election meetings I had moderated at GPHS, the candidates didn’t shake my hand when it was over.
And I went back to work.