April 17, 2024

Editor's Page

Fight Night

Vickie Chachere | 12/1/2022

The stage was set: Vivid red, white and blue images sparkled on tall screens behind two metal and glass podiums on the stage at the Duncan Theatre on Palm Beach State College’s Lake Worth campus. A low hum of anticipation rose from the audience.

The partners of a statewide coalition, including FLORIDA TREND, were hosting Florida’s U.S. Senate debate, bringing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Val Demings together. We viewed our magazine’s participation as both an honor and responsibility to the people of Florida.

As I waited in the narrow wings of the stage, a young Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy clad in body armor squeezed past me; just days before there had been a nearby threat of a mass shooting. The deputy reminded me of a former intern who had fulfilled his goal of working in law enforcement by joining the U.S. Capitol Police; my co-workers and I spent more than a day after the Jan. 6 insurrection anxiously waiting to hear he’d escaped serious injury. Being in the bubble of a major political event used to feel safe; it doesn’t anymore. The young man who made the threat and the deputy were about the same age, and neither of them much older than my 20-year-old son watching from home or the bright and engaging Palm Beach State student volunteers at the event.

I took my seat next to Palm Beach Post Executive Editor Rick Christie while WPBF anchor Todd McDermott, a veteran debate moderator, was at the podium and assistant news director Emily Thompson’s reassuring voice came through my earpiece. It was showtime.

The debate was broadcast in Florida’s 10 major media markets, livestreamed on dozens of websites and can be found on YouTube and C-SPAN. Such events are increasing rarities, according to a recent Brookings Institution report on the decline of Senate candidate debates in the most competitive races. A decade ago, there were 17 debates across the top five U.S. Senate races; this year, just six.

The effort to organize the debate began in January and was led by some of the state’s most reputable organizations, specifically brought together by Florida public affairs stalwart Ron Sachs to lend balance and credibility to the effort. Leading the production was Alongi Media, one of the world’s best producers of political events, having staged the 2012 and 2016 Republican National Conventions and numerous Florida debates. Phil Alongi learned his craft at NBC News working with American journalism icon Tom Brokaw. In a full-circle moment, I learned Phil had been part of NBC’s coverage of the 1980 national conventions — the very telecasts that inspired me to become a journalist the summer before high school.

Our team invested weeks of work on the questions. We started by focusing on a range of issues that surveys identified as crucial to Florida voters, placing Hurricane Ian first on the list when the killer storm struck. We looked at the issues the campaigns elevated and considered the intricacies of immigration policy, the drivers of inflation and concerns about the long-term stability of Social Security. We put ourselves in the shoes of Floridians who don’t circulate in the corridors of power, considering what they needed to hear on the issues impacting their lives. At times, we respectfully disagreed on how to frame a question, but then came to consensus — that’s what people of differing points of view do when they value each other, the voters and the process.

We constructed questions to give the candidates time to talk about their legislative agendas — both had achievements they could have touted had they not spent so much of their allotted time insulting each other or straying off topic. If at times it felt as if you could have switched the channel to a Real Housewives episode and found less squabbling, you weren’t alone. I later tallied the amount of time the candidates spent going after each other instead of the issue. They squandered the most time on a question about inflation — the top issue for most voters.

Candidates are compelled to show themselves as “fighters,” you probably heard that word used incessantly in their ads. The modern political ethos of “enragement equals engagement” is good for making campaign consultants and social media companies very rich, but it’s awful for creating a healthy public discourse.

What struck me the most about both these candidates wasn’t their differences, but what they have in common — theirs is a story similar to my own and likely thousands of voters who were watching. We were raised by parents who lived in times and places that were neither free nor fair societies and with limited opportunities. Our parents worked low-wage jobs but raised us to put our focus on education and engaging our communities. At some point, each of us saw someone in public life who inspired us or became a role model: “That’s who I want to be.” And while the odds were against any of us making it to that stage, if you get there, you can’t forget who’s watching — maybe it’s your child, or the student thinking of a career in the public arena, or even the deeply troubled young man who thinks violence is the answer.

Our elected representatives set the tenor of the nation’s public life, and even when elections are over, the acrimony rages on. My fear is a generation of young people, having only seen venomous partisanship, regards this as a normal part of politics and public service in America. You can wrap it up in red, white and blue, but it’s not.

Find me on Twitter, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.

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