Friday, March 31, 2006

Bill Grace Meets the Bloggers

I went into the Bill Grace interview as cold as I ever had. I knew only that he is the Mayor of Elyria and that he is running for the Democratic nomination in Ohio 13. And I suppose I knew that his candidacy hasn’t gotten much traction down here.

In attendance were Scott Bakalar, George Nemeth, Tim and Gloria Ferris, Tim Russo and Karen Kilroy. (I neglected to take notes of who was there, so apologies if anyone was omitted.) Special thanks to Scott for making it happen.

I’ve been pretty open about my connections to the Betty Sutton camp. I went into the interview trying to keep an open mind about Bill Grace. I feel that I did. In the end, I declare Grace a strong second behind Sutton. I leave it to you the reader to decide how well I curbed my biases.

I evaluate candidates on three variables: Ability to analyze and discuss policy, harmony with Pho’s views and the various factors that make up candidate appeal.

Taking the last first, Grace has the goods to get elected. He is youngish – 42 years old – and makes a decent appearance. He doesn’t have over-the-top charisma, but he has the basic ability to work a room and a pleasant speaking manner. As the interview progressed, it was clear that he had done some blogreading homework to prepare. He does well making the case for his accomplishments.

Generally speaking, his positions work for me, with some reservations I’ll discuss below. Where he fell short in my mind was demonstrating policy chops. Now to be fair, he probably would have needed to blow me away a la Subodh Chandra to win my endorsement, so let’s say policy ability was where he failed to blow me away.

In my mind, over the course of the interview he spoke eloquently about The Problem but had nothing to say about The Solution. On education, the problem is excessively onerous requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. On health care, the problem is high costs to citizens and employers. On trade, the problem is an uneven playing field because our trading partners don’t have worker safety laws or environmental protections.

I got a little frustrated and asked if 1) he had ideas about reforming NCLB or 2) if he had a legislative proposal about anything. Answer to the second question, basically no. To be fair, he has only been in the race a couple of months and is trying to run a city at the same time. Fine, but that leaves his policymaking ability something of a mystery to the observer.

It also raises questions about what he actually believes in. After all, Democrats and Republicans can agree on at least some problems; it’s how those problems are addressed that often defines political differences. I’m reminded of the story that at one point during the ’92 election a focus group participant complained of Bill Clinton, “It’s like if you asked him his favorite color, he would say plaid.” Bill Grace has a tendency toward plaid. This is most apparent in an exchange toward the end about abortion.

It starts with his answer to my horserace question in which he notes that not many “national groups” have endorsed candidates in this race and those that have were prompted by the candidate’s extreme position on the group’s issues. I said that I had run this cryptic statement through my Political Decoder Ring and it led me to ask him his position on abortion.

Based on the confusion in the room, the meaning of the joke wasn’t self evident. I was thinking of EMILY’S List endorsing Sutton. The Cafaro camp alleges that the reason is that Cafaro is more moderate on abortion – she favors parental notification and is against federal funding – and Sutton is more on all fours with the pro-choice platform.

I didn’t explain all that at the time, but merely asked his position. This is where the fun begins. His first response is that ten percent of the population is against abortion, ten percent is for legalized abortion and the other eighty percent would rather not talk about it.

Nice try .

Time was short, but I was able to get in one last question – if Roe v. Wade is overturned and an abortion ban is before you as a Representative, how do you vote. His response is a win-on-errors promise to vote against it because in that circumstance it should be left to the states. And what does he think the states should do? Oops, times up.

I absolutely loath what the abortion issue has done to political discourse, so I’m not going to argue against Grace because he is insufficiently fervent in his belief in a woman’s right to choose. But his responses reinforced a sense of wishy-washiness that would give me pause even if I didn’t have a favorite candidate.

Now all this could be spun as an ability to talk about troublesome issues in a way that generates a minimum of trouble. We’re deep in eye of the beholder territory here. Certainly I could defend the practice if he was my guy. Similarly, he claims he got into the race because he didn’t have a candidate. His problem with Betty Sutton is that she moved out of the district. Again, eye of the beholder. I don’t have a problem with her making a decision that worked best for her marriage. I’ve done the same thing in my life.

I wouldn’t have a problem with Bill Grace as my representative – in contrast with some of the other candidates. I just think Betty Sutton is better, for reasons I’ve recounted before.

Unfortunately, Grace is more likely to be a spoiler than a backstop. He admits not raising much money and puts brave face on it, noting that he’s been outspent in every election. Maybe, but this is a much different election. In a large, diverse area like Ohio 13, a candidate needs to at least participate in the air war. What’s more, he has essentially no presence in Summit, so he’s not going to counter the air war by winning the ground war. He’s counting on earned print media. That’s wouldn't be enough even if he swept the paper endorsements -- unlikely in a field of eight.

He will probably win some sort of Lorain County split with Cafaro, maybe enough to keep her from winning. Summit, as the most populous county in the district, is too important to ignore. Even with Wolfe, Sutton and Sawyer fighting over Summit, I don’t believe winning Lorain with no real presence in Summit will be enough. But mark it well, if he keeps Cafaro off the November ballot, I will consider myself in his debt.


Jill said...

Wow. Very interesting, Scott. Thanks for writing this up, especially in advance of tomorrow's MTB with Cafaro. Lots to think about. See you then!