Update (1/19/16, 1:08 p.m.): Former Governor Ted Strickland, candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, has declined our invitation to debate.
Update (1/18/16, 11:25 a.m.): Former State Rep. Matt Dolan has agreed to participate in the 24th State Senate District GOP primary debate.
Update (1/18/16 11:00 a.m.): At this point nearly all candidates invited have agreed to debate. The only candidates yet to respond are former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, candidate for the democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and former State Rep. Matt Dolan, candidate for the Republican nomination in the 24th State Senate District.
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All of us here spend a lot of time thinking about how we can do things better. If you've come to an event in the last two years, seen one on television or YouTube or heard one on the radio or our podcast, you've noticed it. We're now in HD (thanks, ideastream!), program formats vary and continue to resonate strongly (thanks, program committees and Director of Programming!), the food is better (thanks, chef!), and the stuff you see--the printed programs, the backdrop, the lapel pins, the book (thanks, lots of awesome people, and especially Falls Communications!) - it's all of a quality that we're very proud of. For a while now, we haven't been entirely satisfied with how we do debates, and we've felt we could do better. So that's what we're trying to do.
These are a few problems we faced in the past that we felt we needed to address:
*Too much decision-making by staff, rather than the community
*Difficulty securing candidate participation
*Concern that the format was potentially too rigid to allow for a true exchange of ideas
*Concern that the audience and audience questions were too partisan
*Concern that moderators were either biased or didn't understand the role
With those concerns in mind, and acknowledging that these are challenges faced at every level of political contests, we thought the time was right to ask our community for help in reimagining and recreating how we do debates.
I've listed the committee members below, and I expect there are names you'll recognize. I have to say, I attend a lot of meetings, and the meeting we had with this group last week energized me in ways I haven't felt in awhile. So what's going to happen and what's going to be different? A few things.
Three debates for the primary
Today, we emailed invitations to the campaigns in three primary races in which we will hold debates: the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate (Kelli Prather, P.G. Sittenfeld, and Ted Strickland); the Democratic Primary for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor(Tim McGinty and Michael O'Malley); and the Republican Primary for the 24th State Senate District (Nan Baker, Matt Dolan, and Mike Dovilla). (By the way, I know the link for McGinty is not a current campaign site--if you've got better links, please tweet them to me!)
To be sure, there are many other races in which we could have chosen to host debates, but the committee decided these met the criteria of being races of significant consequence and importance for Northeast Ohio, and debates that would attract an audience of significance.
This was the text of the invitation sent to the 24th Senate District candidates (the other invitations were similar, though debates in the other races will be held at the City Club):
I write on behalf of The City Club of Cleveland, our board of directors, and our 2016 Debate Committee, some of whom are copied on this communication.
You are invited to participate in a primary debate with all candidates seeking the Republican nomination for in Ohio’s 24th Senate District. Debates are a vital part of our democratic process and provide citizens with an opportunity to engage with candidates prior to the Ohio primary on March 15.
The debate will likely be held in the second half of February, 2016, at a venue inside the 24th District. We are in conversation with the WestShore Republicans, Cuyahoga Valley Republicans, and the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County to enlist their partnership in this event.
We would like to open a dialogue with the campaigns to discuss content, format, potential moderators and potential dates.
If your opponents decline to participate, you will have the opportunity to address the City Club audience alone.
Please communicate with either me or our Director of Programming, Stephanie Jansky, prior to Monday, January 25, 2016, to confirm your interest and availability to participate in a primary debate. Our phone number is 216.621.0082. Email addresses are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Engagement with campaigns
The committee and staff will engage with campaigns earlier and more often. In the past, the City Club has typically dictated the terms of the debate (content, format, moderators, etc.). We believe more engagement with the campaigns can help us better serve both the public and the candidates. So we will ask campaigns to tell us the issues they think are the most important. We will invite their input on debate format, so we can make debates less about timekeeping and more about discourse and distinction. And we will seek their input on moderators, as well. Ultimately, committee members will make the decisions.
A commitment to transparency
We've always been interested in transparency, but we're going to do more. We'll use this blog as a place to explain what's going on and where we are in the process. An example of the kind of transparency we're talking about is the invitation posted above.
The question and answer period will likely change
We've long been committed to direct engagement with the community, and that has meant that we've let our audience ask questions themselves. There has been a tradeoff. What we gained in direct communication with voters was always offset by the possibility that audience questions would be tilted or stacked in favor of one candidate or another. The committee feels that audience questions are a vital part of what the City Club does and of our community's DNA, but committee members feel we can do better. The committee decided to pilot a new approach to audience questions, a two-stage, hybrid approach.
Prior to the debates, the committee will solicit questions from the community, and a diverse and politically balanced subset of committee will vet the questions, selecting a few for the first part of the audience Q&A.
And then, in an effort to preserve some of the spontaneity of unscripted City Club events in which questions are often about what was just said, the committee will solicit questions via Twitter and will read those questions themselves.
Moderators may not all be from the media
This is an area we are still discussing, but we believe that there are many civically engaged, well-informed, fair-minded people in the community who could serve as moderators, alongside our media partners. We want to find them. It could be you. Let us know if it is.
There will be more updates as we go along, particularly when we hear back from candidates. Watch this space and our social media feeds for those updates.
Below is that list of committee members. You're also a part of this. Show up. Listen to the debates. Share the content with your community. Thank you for being involved.
The 2016 City Club Debate Committee
Kristen Baird Adams
Phil Calabrese, co-chair
Rev. Henry Curtis
Sylvia Perez, co-chair
Correction: January 17, 2016, 7:54 a.m. This post was corrected to add a hyperlink to the official campaign website of Michael O'Malley, candidate for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor.