Either Argue or Cut Debate

In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for the United States Senate, a series of debates was held across the state of Illinois. Thousands attended the now-legendary affairs, and to accommodate the sizable crowds, the debates were often held outdoors with the candidates standing atop raised wooden platforms. Illuminated by torch light and relying upon the strength of their voices to carry their words to the farthest reaches of the audience, Lincoln and Douglas were engaged in more than just a polemic exercise. They were waging an inspiring battle of ideas, embodying the true spirit of democracy.

Oh, how times have changed.
Over the past six weeks, the candidates for Dade County mayor have held more than a dozen debates, none of which has quite risen to the Lincoln-Douglas level. Of course, who knows what the Lincoln-Douglas debates would have been like if Party of God candidate Clennon King had been thrown into the mix, or Manny "Broom-Broom" Gonzalez-Goenaga, or, for that matter, even Xavier Suarez? ("Sure, abolition of slavery is important," Suarez might have argued, "but if I'm your senator, I promise that the streets of Springfield will be free of horse shit. I guarantee it.")

The main shortcoming of the mayoral debates is the fact that they don't seem to be reaching any undecided voters, since each candidate packs the audience with his own supporters. During the Downtown Bay Forum, for instance, when one of the candidates asked how many of the 200 people attending the debate hadn't yet made up their minds about whom to vote for, only a dozen people raised their hands. The other central problem with the debates is that the candidates don't really say anything, because the questions are never sharp enough to elicit anything more than platitudes.

"They really aren't about debating issues," says candidate Art Teele. "They are more of a meat market or a beauty pageant where these groups invite all of the candidates in at the same time to look us over." Among the groups who have so far sponsored debates: the Metropolitan Fellowship of Churches, the Dade Cultural Alliance, the Latin Builders Association, the Northeast Dade Coalition, and the Black Business Association. And there are at least another twenty organizations with invitations pending.

Which isn't to say the debates haven't been entertaining. They have. Amid the relentless drone of how crime is bad and environmentalism is good, several wondrous and awkward moments have emerged.

One of the earliest debates was sponsored by the Metropolitan Fellowship of Churches, a coalition of religious groups across the county that invited the four major candidates -- Teele, Suarez, Maurice Ferre, and Alex Penelas -- to the Riverside Baptist Church. At the outset each of the candidates was asked to discuss in general terms the role church groups would play in their administrations. Each candidate cheerily replied that the community's religious sector would be a vital and integral part of his plans for the future. Penelas even managed to work in a Bible verse from the New Testament (Matthew 5:19).

But the group also wanted at least one specific guarantee: a commitment to loosen zoning restrictions so that new churches could be built in rural parts of the county. No problem, the candidates replied.

Indeed, everything seemed to be going just fine until one gentleman rose and asked the candidates simply to state their positions on abortion and gay rights. Suddenly the church became very quiet; the four candidates appeared as stunned as the Philistines during the Battle of Mizpah, which, as we all know from reading the Old Testament, was a great victory for the Israelites.

Sensing the potential of another slaughter, none of the candidates moved toward the microphone, hoping instead that through divine intervention the question might be miraculously transformed, like water into wine, into a query about the declining tax base in unincorporated Dade County or the role of community policing. Finally, after an interminable pause, Suarez spoke. Slowly and with measured words, he told the congregation that those two issues really had nothing to do with the mayor's race and his views on those subjects were irrelevant.

As Suarez leaned back in his chair, Teele, Ferre, and Penelas all nodded in agreement and silently prayed that the moderator would move on to the next question. Which he did, prompting an angry walkout by about a dozen people who wanted the moderator to press each of the candidates for an answer.

As Herald political editor Tom Fiedler began introducing the four main candidates for mayor to the packed auditorium at Miami's Museum of Science three weeks ago, Clennon King appeared and made his way to the foot of the stage. Fiedler, casting nervous glances toward King, halted his introductory remarks and walked over to the candidate, who by now had climbed up on the stage and was looking for a place to sit. When Fiedler suggested King leave the stage, the 76-year-old former civil rights leader declared that since he paid his $300 filing fee to enter the race he had just as much right as any of the other candidates to be on that stage.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede