I just read through my previous nine posts which were composed and uploaded from my laptop within the debate hall. Once again I proclaim that the most valuable course I had in high school was typing. Because of that I was able to capture much of what the candidates said in real time in those posts, so I don’t have anything more to add to that. [UPDATE: I’ve now compiled all nine during-the-debate posts in a single page for ease of reading].
Having withstood the temptation to visit the post-debate parties at Garcia Brogans and at the Inn and Conference Center, I’ll now try to offer some analysis while it’s all fresh in my mind. Much to the dismay of the other candidates, the biggest story tonight was Elizabeth Warren. As the Herald journalist teased in the pre-debate video introduction, this would be Warren’s first-ever political debate. I thought she did very well – and I won’t even say “considering it was her first debate . . .” – because she did do very well period. She is very bright and very comfortable speaking in public. She showed no hesitation or nervousness. A few of her responses bordered on being too professorial when, in a one-minute answer format, short, punchy answers work best. But that was barely noticeable. What was noticeable was her strict adherence to the theme of fighting for middle class families. When other politicians say it, it sounds like a talking point; when Elizabeth Warren says it, you know she means it. While there was no mixing it up between candidates tonight, the kind of impromptu exchanges that often define an entire candidacy, having seen Warren mix it up with some House Committee chair on CSPAN back during the summer, I’m guessing she’ll handle that phase of political debating with ease once it arises. So Elizabeth Warren passed her first debate test; she’ll only get better.
While Warren had high expectations going in, one candidate who had low expectations and greatly exceeded them was Marisa DeFranco. An immigration attorney from the North Shore who has never ran for public office, DeFranco repeatedly showed a combativeness that must serve her clients well. Her answers were direct without a hint of nuance. While she said the same thing as several of the other candidates, she said it with greater passion and force and so seemed stronger. But, while extreme positions play well from the stage, in the cold light of day many folks understand that these issues are all exceeding complicated and solutions are elusive so I’m not sure how much truly committed support DeFranco picked up tonight. Still, she certainly showed that she belonged on the stage.
Bob Massie gave DeFranco some competition in the passionate answer department. Massie just exudes sincerity and good-heartedness and so he can make pointed comments about Scott Brown or Washington and not risk being seen as divisive. Maybe this is a small thing, but I remember Massie as the Democratic nominee for Lt Governor back in 1994, the year in which Bill Weld overwhelmingly won reelection (Mark Roosevelt was the gubernatorial nominee). I know that Massie had some intervening health problems (he talked about them on the stage), but there’s a 16 year gap between running for Lt Gov and running for US Senate, and that might be a distraction for some. Of course, one good thing about that 1994 election was Ted Kennedy’s trouncing of Mitt Romney in that year’s US Senate race.
Herb Robinson, a retired engineer, seemed like a pleasant enough fellow who had some interesting ideas, but if having interesting ideas was a winning qualification for a US Senate candidate, there wouldn’t be just 6 in the race, there’d be about 60,000. Robinson has to bring something more than interesting and good ideas to this race to be competitive.
Tom Conroy is a state representative with a wide range of interesting experiences. He came across as a polished, yet sincere, campaigner who had a clear strategy of how to present himself to the voters. He succeeded in doing that and has to be judged to be one of the chief competitors in the “alternative to Elizabeth Warren” contest within a contest.
The other in that category, of course, is Alan Khazei, who ran for this Senate seat in the special election two years ago. Khazei’s history with City Year gives him a great story and presumably an army of committed campaign volunteers. With our current hard times following an era of abuse and excess by Wall Street and corporate America, Khazei’s background in volunteer, community-oriented organizations could ignite the imagination of the electorate. Because he has already run for this office once before, I would think he will be seen as the main alternative to Elizabeth Warren.
Speaking of Warren, she finds herself in an enviable but awkward position. Enviable in that she’s the clear front runner in a crowded field with no one, if the UML-Herald poll is accurate, even close to her. It’s awkward because (1) if she acts like she’s the presumptive nominee, voters will sense it and her big lead will evaporate and (2) as any sports fan knows, with a big lead you tend to let up on the gas and often your opponent will catch up. However, note I used the singular of “opponent” – Warren greatly benefits from the crowded field. Everyone else gets lost in the shuffle of words until it’s Warren’s turn. That’s when everyone tunes in. If it were Khazei v Warren or Conroy v Warren, it would be a different race, although I assume Warren would still be the favorite.
A few words about the format and the logistics: I thought this was a wonderful debate, partly because of the quality performances of the candidates, but also because the format, which had a variety of question types and time limits, did not get in the way of the exchange of ideas. Everything moved smoothly. Sure, it would have been nice to give people unlimited time to talk about taxes or health care or any other issue, but that’s not practical given the time constraints and the presence of six candidates. Working with those limitations, the UML people did a great job with this event and that was certainly true when it came to the choice of moderator. Marty Meehan may have served in Congress for 14 years, but he’s immersed himself in politics his entire life. He showed a comfort level with the content, the stage, the needs of the candidates and ran the 90 minute debate flawlessly.
I can’t end without pointing out the highly ironic slip of the tongue that occurred when one of the student questioners, after being given the floor by Meehan, replied “Thank you, Senator” which drew a laugh from everyone, Marty included. (Note to those who have lived in a bubble devoid of politics for the past decade plus, Marty was – and still may be – interested in serving in the US Senate).
Finally, thanks to all the folks at UMass Lowell who gave local citizen journalists like me and Lynne from Left in Lowell and Cliff from Right Side of Lowell and David from Blue Mass Group access that was co-equal to the professionals from the mainstream media. Thanks also to Jack Mitchell for capturing some video of the debate. My seat, while right up front, was in defilade to the stage so my video camera would have gone unused. Before the event began, I tossed it to Jack who filled it with clips of the candidates speaking (They’ll be posted tomorrow).