Council forums, debates plentiful

– Who says campaign candidates have to distance themselves from
their opponents?
GILROY – Who says campaign candidates have to distance themselves from their opponents?

All of the hopefuls in the 2003 Gilroy City Council and mayoral elections have something in common – they’re getting bombarded by questionnaires and invitations to participate in debates.

Candidates vying for seats on the dais are reporting an unprecedented amount of contact being made by political organizations this election year.

When all seven City Council candidates finished their campaign interviews at The Dispatch last week, they were handed an invitation to an Oct. 21 candidates forum the newspaper and the community access TV station are sponsoring. All the candidates’ reactions to the invite sounded something like this – “Another one?”

“There’s so many forums and debates this time around I have to use a Palm Pilot to organize my Palm Pilot,” second-time City Council candidate Russ Valiquette quipped after receiving his invitation.

By the time the 2003 election is over, candidates will have had an opportunity to face off five times. When candidates ran for Gilroy offices in 2001, there was one debate.

This year’s debates, some of which already have been held, are as follows:

• Sept. 17, a new voter education group, Gilroy First!, holds a candidates forum.

• Oct. 3, Theater Angels Art League holds a question and answer session.

• Oct. 9, the California Republican Assembly will hold a forum where candidates can ask each other questions.

• Oct. 15, the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American University Women will hold what has been Gilroy’s traditional candidates forum.

• Oct. 21, The Dispatch and Community Media Access Partnership (CMAP) TV, channel 20, will run their first joint candidates forum.

Theories about the onslaught of candidates questionnaires and forums are as varied as the candidates themselves. Some say it’s fallout from California’s recall election, which sometimes seems to have turned politics upside down. Others have wondered if the downturn in the economy – and the subsequent slicing of government budgets – has sparked the interest of special interests vying to be top dogs on candidates’ priority lists.

“For us, it was the progress that was made on the arts and cultural center,” said Arlene Silva, president of Theater Angels Art League which held its first-ever candidates forum Friday night. “Knowing that a downtown arts center is one step closer to reality, that was a big shot in the arm.”

Just months ago, City Council approved a downtown location for a future arts and cultural center in Gilroy.

“Artists by themselves can be individual creators, but right now we have the right combination of people who have organized us to think collectively,” Silva said. “It was time we provided the opportunity to meet and know the candidates, and it was time for them to meet us and know us, too.”

Wanting to know candidates a little better is Valiquette’s theory on the new demand for candidates’ time.

“There have been a lot of candidates running for City Council and mayor in the recent elections, and when you have just one debate and everyone is limited to 30 seconds or a minute to respond, I think people are left wanting to know more,” Valiquette said.

For City Council candidate Paul Correa, competitiveness is part of his theory.

Correa, a member of Gilroy First!, says the attention his get-out-the-vote organization received over its ties to the unions may have inspired groups more business-friendly to enter the fray.

After word got out that Gilroy First! was producing brochures based on a candidate questionnaire, the Right Track committee, which endorsed candidates back in the 2001 election, stepped things up a notch in 2003. It will endorse candidates again, and this time will mail brochures to residents using candidate-questionnaire responses.

The California Republican Assembly debate Thursday is an even more direct response to Gilroy First!’s efforts. When City Council allowed the group to use City Hall and city TV for its candidates forum Sept. 17, the president of the Gilroy and Morgan Hill branch of the CRA, Mark Zappa, vowed to hold a similar forum.

Zappa claimed Gilroy First!’s ties to the AFL-CIO union, which endorsed a slate of candidates who were members of Gilroy First!, qualified the Sept. 17 forum as a partisan event. Zappa’s answer to Council’s decision to OK the Gilroy First! forum was to make the city OK the partisan CRA forum, too.

“I think there are people who are trying to get voter participation to increase, and then there are the ones in power trying to match that effort,” Correa said.

No matter what the theory, there remains a limited amount of time for each candidate to participate in the forums and respond to the questionnaires.

One City Council candidate, Mark Dover, for instance has missed both forums held thus far. Some candidates boycotted the Gilroy First! one. Dover did not, he said work commitments did not allow him to attend.

Correa says his Oct. 9 no-show will not be a statement against the CRA. Rather, his tight schedule, he said, was set long before he received notice about the debate.

“I’ve been filling out as many surveys and questionnaires as I can. You can always find time to get to those, but it’s different with events like forums. You need a lot of notice,” Correa said.

So at the end of the day are voters going to be more informed or will they simply have more partisan rhetoric to sift through? Mayor Tom Springer, who has managed campaigns in addition to running his own, says the latter may be more true.

Springer calls the questionnaires nothing more than “persuasion campaigns.”

“I don’t see a lot of true nonpartisan, independent information floating around right now,” Springer said. “And, a lot of last minute stuff is still to come that candidates won’t have much time to respond to.”

However, Springer is encouraged by the amount of debates slated for 2003.

“I like to see all the forums happening. When voters get information directly from candidates especially in the form of one-to-one comparisons and door-to-door campaigning voters are best off.” Springer said.

Springer said he hopes to see one day on CMAP’s channel 20 one-on-one interviews of candidates responding to the same questions.