I spent the afternoon Monday at WTTW, the public television station that was holding the first televised debate of the Chicago mayoral race. It was about as exciting as a high school civics lesson on how to run for student council.
The topic was education. To underline its importance, WTTW invited 250 high school students from the Mikva Challenge program to question the four principal contenders. Over the course of an hour, the students posed questions on things they worry about every day: security guards who don’t intervene in school fights, neighborhoods they can’t walk through to get to school, and after school programs in the arts and athletics being cut for lack of funding.
To the candidates, every question was “a good question” or “an excellent question.” To the students, every answer was a pledge to expand this promising program or that, but as Currie High School senior Taylor Brown told a press conference afterward, “I feel as though it’s the same, shady, simple answers, nothing detailed, sorry,” she said.
That’s harsh. But hey, whose idea was it to let 17-year-olds drive the discussion on how to manage a $6 billion a year public school budget? What new concepts do they have to offer to avoid the $400 million shortfall that will keep the school board from cutting even more next year? How much will the cookies cost at their bake sale? And why did the candidates go along with this charade of involvement anyway?
Goodbye Rose Garden
The three candidates that have been chasing Rahm Emanuel in the mayor’s race – Carol Moseley Braun, Gery Chico and Miguel Del Valle – all complained over the last month that Emanuel has been running a “Rose Garden” campaign. The WTTW debate was their first opportunity to dispell that notion and – to use a football expression (why not, it’s playoff season?) – they all went three and out with the clock ticking down.
There will be three more televised debates before the February 22 primary: A WGN-TV debate on January 27; another WTTW Forum on February 14; and an ABC-League of Women Voters debate February 17 in the Oriental Theater. If the first WTTW forum is any indication, three debates should be plenty enough time to discern the differences in the candidates. (And four would be like getting sent to detention.) With professional journalists in charge, the questions next time should be sharper. But anyone who expects Emanuel to lose his cool wasn’t there for the 12-hour grilling he took at a residency hearing where even the hat on Queen Sister Georgetta Deloney couldn’t bring a smirk to his face.
The Tribune Ed Board
The debate that pulled Emanuel out of the rose garden came out of the blue last Friday when the Tribune editorial board sat the four major candidates down in their boardroom for nearly two hours of Q & A with reporters and editorial writers.
The confrontation was not broadcast on TV, nor was it promoted in advance. But the Tribune and WGN did webcast it live over the Internet and the audience grew through the afternoon as friends alerted friends by Facebook and Twitter about this remarkable thing that was going on.
The editorial board meeting was the kind of informed, intelligent discussion everyone wants to see in politics. Hopefully, it is the harbinger of future debates we can expect to see in the 2012 presidential race. All of the candidates presented reasonable, cogent explanations of their positions. Then about an hour in, Braun took advantage of the loose format to raise a concern about whether Emanuel’s prank sending a dead fish to a rival or telling male staff members to “Take the tampons out and go to work” constituted suitable behavior for a Chicago mayor.
The clumsy broadside opened the door for the other candidates to pile on. But it was Chico who finally framed the question as a “legitimate concern about temperament.” i.e. Will Emanuel’s hardball tactics help or hurt the city when he has to negotiate new labor contracts or woo new businesses to the city?
Humor on the Campaign Trail?
Emanuel’s foul mouth has been a source of amusement to friends (and irritation to foes) for most of his public career. President Obama made light of it at a 2005 roast in Chicago and Saturday Night Live mocked it in a late night TV skit. In this mayoral campaign, however, Emanuel’s temper has been as calm as the Dead Sea.
Reporters covering the race are in stitches every day reading the anonymous tweets of a wag who writes daily under the moniker @MayorEmanuel about the imaginary exploits of Emanuel, his best friend Axe and intern Carl. Four or five times a day, he posts updates on his day that weave fuck in between every other word. MayorEmanuel’s twitter feed has twice as many followers as Emanuel’s official site (8,142 vs. 3,291) and Emanuel himself is said to read it and find it funny. But its existence is being treated as gingerly by the press as JFK’s extra-curricular love life.
Bill Clinton came to town Tuesday, the day after the WTTW debate, to boost Emanuel’s candidacy. His arrival seemed to signal that the race has turned a significant corner. Speaking to 700 fans (and 21 TV cameras) at the Cultural Center, he lavished praise on Emanuel as someone who will give the Windy City “a gale force of leadership.”
“Finally, I met someone who makes me look laid back,” the former president said, adding ominously “He will be fearlessly honest with you . . . He will do things none of us will like, but you will, in the process, re-invent Chicago.”
While Clinton was speaking, Chico was holding a press conference trying to link Clinton’s appointment of Emanuel to the board overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to an “Enron-style” scandal. In the 14 months Emanuel served on the board – earning $320,000 for attending as few as nine meetings – Chico charged that he “looked the other way and took the cash” when the agency formulated a plan to give campaign donations to politicians (including Emanuel). That decision resulted in a $3.8 million fine from the Federal Election Commission; later the Securities and Exchange Commission would fine the agency another $585 million for assorted stock manipulations that took place on Emanuel’s watch. At the same time Chico was going after Fannie Mae, Del Valle was standing in an abandoned home on the West Side that was swept into foreclosure under Freddie Mac’s lending policies, and putting the blame on Emanuel.
All this took place while a new infusion of cash enabled Chico to up his rotation of TV ads to match Emanuel’s and Braun prepped to tape her first commercials to run next week. The next media polls (any day now) will presumably reflect Braun consolidating her African-American support, Chico gaining name recognition from his TV ads, Emanuel holding even in the close-but-no-cigar quest for a 50% plus one majority. And the biggest loser in the next poll will be . . . undecided.
Tuesday ended with Braun readying a $1,000-a-head fundraiser (to pay for her TV commercials) and Chico leaking word on the 10 o’clock news that he has received an endorsement maybe more important than Clinton’s – the Fraternal Order of Police who represent almost 11,000 Chicago cops. Clearly, this race has turned an important corner.
The Internet Campaign
As much as reporters relish the give and take of a battle royal in the mayor’s race, the reality of a changing media landscape is they are ill equipped to cover it. A quarter of the newsroom staffs have been let go in the last year. The news hole in the papers is half as large as it was four years ago and the local TV stations, who thrive off political advertising, still can’t figure out why the public would care more about who is the next mayor than who got murdered in last’s night triple homicide.
With the exception of Fox News 32, where Bob Sirott, Robin Robinson, Mike Flannery and Larry Yellen are breaking new ground with exclusive political news every night, there’s no media other than the Internet where you can find out what’s happening in the mayoral race. (And chances are good you will never even watch the Fox 32 broadcast because it airs in primetime at 9 PM where the ratings book shows it lags just above Beavis and Butthead reruns on the Cartoon Network.)
Almost by default, the Internet has become the go-to source of political news. Websites like Breaking Chicago News, Early and Often. The Week Behind and Twitter feeds from overworked political reporters give a better sense of the campaign ebb and flow than any on-air broadcasts. (Example: Mike Flannery’s live tweet from the WTTW debate: “Good idea for HS kids to quiz candidates. Sad result: mostly superficial, totally predictable.”) But the candidate who fails to exploit its other advantages for scheduling, organizing, fund raising and, maybe most important, “friend-raising” is toast in this digital age.
My BarackObama 2.0
One of the key moments in Tuesday’s Clinton rally at the Cultural Center slipped totally under the radar of the attending press. During the crowd warm-up, Emanuel’s south side field director Sean Rapelyea asked the crowd to take out their cell phones and text message a special campaign number. The number connected them to a volunteer database from which staffers could automatically send them call lists, schedules or other organizing tools. Rapelyea made one call on stage to demonstrate the proper way to talk to voters, then he instructed the audience to try one on their own. Rapelyea’s exuberant example turned a political rally into a two-minute version of a Saul Alinsky training session.
In the same vein, Emanuel’s field organization is not unlike the MyBarackObama.com system used in the 2008 presidential race. The philosophy of mixing technology with field organizing is the same; and it’s not a stretch to believe (given that Emanuel’s campaign strategists come out of David Axelrod’s AKP consultancy) that Emanuel is test-driving MyBarackObama 2.0 for the 2012 race. The results to date are impressive. With only four field offices in the city, the campaign claims it has signed up 5,000 field volunteers who, over the last four months, have contacted some 150,000 voters and held over 30,000 direct conversations with them.
Making Politics Fun
The underlying premise of Emanuel’s field organizing effort is that working for Rahm is not only good government but good fun. They are holding Phonebank Bingo and Potluck Monday parties every week at the regional offices to rally volunteers. But there are also free tickets to Friday’s fundraiser with Andy Samberg for the volunteer with the most calls and a backstage photo-op with Jeff Tweedy when Wilco headlines another fundraiser at the Park West January 30 still to be given away. Do your job right and you might win a FREE “Rahm for Mayor” bumper sticker (that otherwise would cost your $1.98 at the online Rahm store.)
This weekend, while Carol Moseley Braun heads to Uptown to open her first north side field office, Emanuel volunteers will be out canvassing door-to-door in all 50 wards with the stated goal reaching 22,000 voters. By Election Day, they should have at least 200,000 names on their computers that poll watchers can check off on their iPods or iPads as they vote. Back at campaign headquarters, phone bankers can contact those who haven’t voted based on an instantly-updated database.
Social Networks Matter
A website, a Facebook page, Twitter and YouTube accounts are mandatory these days in politics. All of the major candidates have them but none approach the depth and breadth of Emanuel’s operation. On Facebook, for instance, Emanuel currently has 46,000 Facebook friends. Del Valle has 3,500; Chico has 3,000; and Braun, 1200. Thousands of these have been collected from cheap, but effective, Internet ad blurbs that cost the Emanuel campaign nothing to collect.
Without Emanuel’s resources, Del Valle has nonetheless used the social networks of his supporters to gain an impressive lock on the hearts of Chicago’s liberal community. Chico has a robust but largely ineffectual web presence. But some of the other candidates – yes I’m talking to you, Carol – are downright baffling in their use of the Internet.
Twitter Me This, Twitter Me That
At the moment Braun learned she was the consensus African-American candidate for mayor, her Internet presence shot up from 0 to 60 in a couple days. Her website is (and was) nothing to speak of. But her weapon of choice in this new age political war turns out to be Twitter.
Judging by her tweets, Braun and/or some staff member glued to her hip seem to believe Twitter is a great vehicle for communicating her every thought and movement. During the Tribune editorial board session, the tweets from @CarolforChicago came every few minutes. Again during the WTTW debate, every time Carol spoke, there was a simultaneous tweet encapsulating her thoughts (which seemed a little strange because the debate was taped four hours earlier.) This Wednesday, Braun staged what must be a first on the Internet: a Twitter town hall meeting that drew a total of nine questions, two from the same person. But all it demonstrated is that Braun doesn’t have a political position that can’t be captured in 140 characters.
And the kicker? Braun’s Twitter feed has only 368 followers. This makes her the proverbial tree falling in the forest . . . when even the forest isn‘t listening.