May 16, 2009
In one narcissistic moment, Parker Wiseman may have given away a promising chance to be mayor of Starkville.
The only saving grace for the young mayoral wannabe is his chief opponent has done only slightly better.
Wednesday morning, a week ago, just a few hours after the two men handily dispatched incumbent Mayor Dan Camp in the city''s Democratic primary, a group of interested citizens proposed a one-on-one debate. The idea was to take the gloves off and offer voters something different, a real debate where candidates took on the issues and each other with a moderator who forced details, not just scripted "soundbite" answers.
The candidates, apparently in the grips of post-election euphoria, initially agreed.
But then organizers threw them what Wiseman considered a curve -- they proposed that I be the moderator. The idea was to bring in an experienced -- dozens of campaigns and elections in 35 years as a reporter, editor, and campaign consultant plus two dozen or so forums and debates -- voice who didn''t have a dog in the hunt.
By Thursday morning, Wiseman "vehemently" objected, according to Robbie Coblentz, one of the movers behind the forum, which would have been recorded and aired several times on Starkville cable television to give voters a chance to see the candidates'' responses.
Wiseman''s objection? He was upset by a few lines in a column I wrote in January in which I referred to his potential campaign. That reference, written as an afterthought to a longer column on another subject, was innocuous at best. But Wiseman told Coblentz my remarks were disparaging.
In an effort to salvage the debate, Coblentz and others suggested Birney Imes, the editor and publisher of the Commercial Dispatch, as a substitute. Wiseman again balked, relying on incorrect information concerning Imes'' relationship with former Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp, who is a Cox supporter.
Cox nixed another possible moderator because of his ties to both candidates and finally when WCBI anchor Aundrea Self Nichols couldn''t do it. Coblentz and others, in frustration, threw in the towel.
Wiseman''s response, not once but twice, is telling. First, the facts be damned, it''s all about Parker. Second, voters can only presume the first time a constituent or alderman or anyone else disagrees -- my comments weren''t even a disagreement, just an observation -- with him, he''s going to storm pouting from the room.
He has built his campaign on his knowledge and training in public policy, coupled with an outsider''s perspective that could bring change and direction to Starkville city government. His well-funded message, while lacking substance, has moved voters, placing him a close second behind Cox, the one-term alderman, in Tuesday''s voting.
He should have relished the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge and skills. Instead, with the pressure on, he cracked.
Cox was only slightly better. He refused only one moderator, not two. And his reasons were almost as shortsighted and selfish.
It''s clear the two candidates are guided by their inflated sense of self-worth and not the only truism of elections -- the voters are the ones who matter. As writer Raina Kelley said in a recent Newsweek column: "Treating the whole world as if it works for you doesn''t suggest you''re special, it means you''re an ass." And I can quote that with some personal experience.
If the two candidates are scared to answer questions, then voters should make them. And the questions are many for both men.
Campaigns short on specifics
Both campaigns are replete with warm and fuzzy promises but short on specifics.
Cox speaks of building roads and a police station, but he was against the police station as proposed prior to his election and against the police and court building during his tenure. He''s yet to articulate how he plans to promote and pay for them now.
He''s also made a lack of consensus in city government one of the cornerstones of his campaign. That''s ironic since he''s been at the center of much of the internal turmoil and lack of unanimity; he and Ward 6 Alderman Roy Perkins routinely vote against things, especially those supported by Camp.
Rocks are easily thrown from outside of glass houses.
Just as confusing is his support for long-term planning when he refuses to "obligate" future boards. If he doesn''t want to tie the hands of future administrations, then any bond issue he pushes must be paid off in four years, assuming he can get a board to agree in the first year to a plan. He did finally support a $6 million road-paving plan, but the city could have paid for a $12 million deal without a tax increase.
Furthermore, he''s said bond proposals should be approved by voters. Under that approach, the city''s elected officials would abdicate their responsibility to make tough decisions, cost the city thousands in elections needlessly and doom most proposals to failure, especially since taxpayers only now are beginning to shoulder the burden of $52 million in hospital and school bond proposals approved in the last 18 months.
Some specific questions Cox must answer: How does he plan to pay for the new and expensive fire trucks needed in the next two years and must be ordered next year? Will he issue the remaining $3 million in road bonds? Why did he vote against new residential developments that will increase the tax base and provide affordable housing alternatives to the south part of town? Does he favor annexation to the east or south to take in areas such as the car dealership and the new roads the county is funding for entrances to MSU or to the west to take in the new apartment complex? Why did he vote against putting city ordinances online to improve service and increase government transparency? Why did he vote against bonds to fund a much-needed new electric department building?
Wiseman deserves more scrutiny
Wiseman should be placed under even more scrutiny. He has no record on which to stand and can get by with simply attacking Cox. That''s unfair.
He must answer many of the same questions facing Cox; he can''t just say he supports something. Anyone can talk generalizations, leaders distinguish themselves with serious thought, details and solutions.
He''s been the poster child for the political generalist. He''s yet to attend an alderman''s meeting and until recently, had not bothered to sit down with any department heads to get their thoughts and insights. He either didn''t think he had a chance, didn''t care or thought he knew it all.
None are good traits for a future mayor.
He talks about performance-based budgeting, but it doesn''t resonate since he has no idea how department heads decide what their departments need based on their day-to-day experiences and expertise. If Cox has been anti-consensus, Wiseman doesn''t even know where to start.
Furthermore, a budget based on citizen groups sounds appealing but often is time consuming and impractical. And it runs the risk of creating government by gripe session while freeing elected officials of the responsibility they accepted when they ran for office.
In short, theory without practical application can bring a lot of wheel spinning and animosity without much productivity.
Unfortunately, I nor any other moderator will get to pin the candidates down on these and other details on behalf of the city''s voters. Hopefully voters will call the candidates, go see them at home or their offices, ask the tough questions and make them answer.
If they don''t, they are the ones abdicating responsibility.
Steve Rogers is assignments editor for WCBI TV. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; other Rogers'' columns can be found at www.wcbi.com.