Candidates struggle to captivate their audience So many run for office that voters are confused

Campaign 1998

September 14, 1998|By Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein | Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Joe Nawrozki and John Murphy contributed to this article.

The nine candidates fighting for a single Anne Arundel County Council seat were in rows onstage like spelling bee contestants.

They had 20 seconds to tackle juvenile crime, two minutes to detail their lifetime accomplishments and political platforms. And because last week's forum at Anne Arundel Community College was one of the final chances to stand out from the crowd in the 5th District race before Tuesday's primary, they compressed their campaigns into maxims:

"Education is an issue. I support it," said Joseph A. Spiegel.

"I care about people," said Susan E. Pogue.

"Children are our most valuable assets," said Robert J. Hannon Jr.

During primary season, bafflement and boredom are common at candidates' forums across the Baltimore region, as these hallmarks of American democracy are governed by an age-old formula: Local races plus too many faces equals glazed expressions among voters.

The yawns sound the same in Howard, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties as they do in Anne Arundel.

"When people talk about voter apathy, this is what they are talking about," said Joseph I. Cassilly, the Harford County state's attorney running for his fifth term. "My experience is that generally more candidates than voters come to these events. So the candidates use candidates' nights to visit with each other."

In Carroll County, 19 people are running for three seats on the Board of County Commissioners, creating awkward public debates. By the time all 19 have a chance to answer the questions, it is difficult for the audience members to remember the topic.

"I was even bored as a candidate," said Stephen Nevin, a Republican candidate for Carroll County commissioner.

No-show steals show

At Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County last month, 14 candidates for four state and one county office were strung along the front of the stage in folding chairs.

The incumbent state senator, Michael J. Collins, was the only one to stand out in the lineup. He did it by avoiding the event.

Showing up after the forum, he held court outside the school, smiling broadly, shaking hands with voters and talking with them one-on-one.

"Isn't this a better way to do it?" Collins asked.

At the forum at Anne Arundel Community College, all nine candidates for the council seat were against cutting school programs, against raising the tax limit and against higher salaries for council members.

They split on the issue of whether another advisory committee should be formed to oversee other advisory committees.

The word "millennium" was repeated often. The moderator kept creeping toward the speakers, raising her hand to shut them down. In the front row sat a man with a stopwatch and signs reading "warning!" and "stop!"

The most impassioned rhetoric rang out when the moderator asked candidates the question: Are their campaign signs inching too close to public roads?

Cathleen M. Vitale, a 34-year-old attorney, suggested that candidates who improperly position their posters are revealing their potential for corruption.

"If a candidate is not going to follow the rules with regard to the signs, I ask you, what next?" Vitale demanded, to a smattering of applause.

Robert J. Hannon Jr., a 26-year-old county public works employee running for the same office, acknowledged sign infractions and asked for forgiveness.

"I admit that I made a mistake. I will not make that mistake again," Hannon pledged.

Afterward, Hannon was the only candidate who made an impression on a community college student from Annapolis named Justin Charles who sat in the audience.

But Charles couldn't remember Hannon's name, because there were so many candidates. And Charles' opinion of Hannon was mixed at best.

"The guy on the very end, he didn't have opinions of his own, so he just tried to take the opinions of that guy," Charles pointed toward other candidates whose names he couldn't remember, "that guy and that guy."

Other audience members said they enjoyed and learned from the forum.

Manning Lee, a 29-year-old from Annapolis, said she liked the short time limits for answers because it prevented politicians from rambling.

"This is the way we live our lives. We use the remote control to flip channels quickly," Lee said.

One long night

However, many local political forums do not zip along.

Here was a timetable for a meet-the-candidates-night in northern Howard County sponsored by Mount Hebron-Orchard Community Association Sept. 1 at Mt. Hebron Presbyterian Church.

7: 31 p.m. -- About 20 residents have arrived to listen to the eight local candidates. A leader of the community association begins reading the minutes. Slowly.

7: 39 p.m. -- The reading of the minutes is over. But now the association president is updating the audience on membership issues not in the minutes. Candidates examine their cuticles. Closely.

7: 58 p.m. -- The forum finally begins. The second County Council candidate to speak, Democrat Debra Ann Slack Katz of the Slack Funeral Home family, said that she is "the embodiment of what the American forefathers thought about when they thought about who should run" for office.

9: 15 p.m. -- Someone is asking the county executive candidates something about taxes, and the listeners no longer appear to be listening. Andrew Becker, 61, briefly dozes. Confronted, he says, laughing: "Warm in here."

9: 25 p.m. -- Audrey Moree, a 65-year-old Republican, has been sitting in a back pew for two hours. Her eyes have started closing for longer than is necessary for a blink. "They were getting a little heavy there for a while," she admits.

But she insists it has nothing to do with the forum, which has

drawn her interest.

Reporter: "You're saying this is riveting?"

Moree (laughing): "No, I didn't say that."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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