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Local pol: Debates only scratch the surface

As the primary season draws to a close, a prominent local political leader has expressed disappointment in how superficiality governs the process and that important issues have not received adequate scrutiny.

“There are some obvious public concerns,” said Kitsap County Republican Chairman Jack Hamilton, a 2006 candidate for Central Kitsap Commissioner. “There are taxes, transportation, health care, immigration and schools, to name a few. What we get at these forums is a standard stump speech, where Person A takes a position and Person B rarely says anything different. They take politically correct positions, and with the time limits they don’t have the opportunity to provide any substance.”

Hamilton made his comments this week after attending the Eggs and Issues forum, a series of events sponsored by the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce, In this case there were three candidates, who were given the chance to make three minute opening and two minute closing statements. In between, they had a chance to provide one minute answers to about ten questions posed by the audience.

“Many voters start thinking about who to vote for when they get their voters pamphlets which arrive three weeks before the election,” he said. “There are 100 word statements that say nothing at all. It’s lunacy to select who is going to run our government on this basis. We need to find a better way to elect people, that goes beyond sound bites and what you get in the pamphlet.”

While he concedes such gatherings are valuable in some ways, Hamilton laments that they provide the only opportunities for the candidates to face each other. He would like them to have the opportunity to answer fewer questions in greater depth, and fears that many candidates are unable to carry on a longer discourse about the issues.

Hamilton is working to organize candidate forums that address issues in greater depth, and is exploring several sponsorship options.

He doesn’t expect his message to catch on, primarily because of who he is. People want to categorize candidates, and vice versa. For instance, a question he asked at this week’s forum was answered in the context of his membership in the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners. “It wasn’t a KAPO question,” he said. “And it was a mistake to answer it in that way.”

Nevertheless, the idea of pumping up the substance crosses party lines. Democrat Party member Jim Sommerhauser favors having a series of forums devoted to single topics that can be explored in greater depth. “A lot of time these forums are attended by supporters of one candidate or another who have already made up their minds,” he said. “The media, if it is there at all, will write a four paragraph story that leaves most of the questions out. It would be nice if BKAT taped the whole thing, and people could watch at home.”

Sommerhauser said that forums presented by interest groups such as KAPO have a chance of being slanted, but this is less likely if the questions originate from an independent moderator or the audience at large.

Kitsap County Auditor Walt Washington is facing his first election contest this fall, and said that the forums he has attended have not given him the opportunity to get his message across.

“Two minutes isn’t enough time to tell people who I am,” Washington, a Democrat, said. “The Democrats and the Republicans will always get 35 percent of the voters. This won’t change. I need a way to reach the other 30 percent, those in the middle, and show them what I stand for and why I am qualified for this job. I would like to be given the opportunity to show this, along with my opponent, in more time.”

Washington could get his wish. He will appear with his Republican opponent, John Clark, in an Eggs and Issues forum on August 26. And Bremerton Chamber of Commerce Operations Manager Frank Gentile said it may be possible to structure upcoming forums to allow longer answers.

Still, Gentile isn’t convinced that answering fewer questions in more depth would work in this format.

“I think it’s better to have a range of topics,” Gentile said. “We are a business organization, and always ask the first two questions. If we only have room for four questions, how do we decide who asks the other two? People come to these events because they can ask questions of the candidates directly. If they can’t do this, they won’t come.”

Columnist Adele Ferguson, an Eggs and Issues fixture, also wants to leave the current forum format intact.

“I like them because you can ask the candidates any question you want,” she said. “And they will usually answer. If you want more they hang around afterwards and you can talk to them then.” Ferguson, however, would like the opportunity to follow up when a candidate has dodged the issue.

Hamilton isn’t sure how to improve the quality of the dialogue, but has a specific reason to try. The 26thth Legislative district contest between Kim Abel and Jan Angel is one of the most closely watched races in the region as it is an evenly matched contest with no incumbent running.

“I am familiar with Jan’s work as a county commissioner and Kim’s service as mayor of Port Orchard,” he said. “But we have yet to see them face each other on the same stage. We have no idea of what they perceive their responsibilities to be when they get to Olympia.”

Angel and Abel will face off on the morning of the primary, Aug. 19, in an Eggs and Issues breakfast at the Cloverleaf in Bremerton. The event is free and open to the public.

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