Your faithful Scene Magazine correspondents Sam Allard and Eric Sandy attended Monday evening's Democratic Primary Debate between four candidates for Ohio Governor. Video of full debate is above.
Sam Allard: You’ve seen these candidates up close more than I have, duder. [Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and former State Rep. Connie Pillich]. How would you rate their performances Monday?
Eric Sandy: There’s nothing like the campaign trail, I guess. I thought each candidate delivered a smooth debate performance last night. This is only the third time they’ve appeared onstage together in what should be a competitive and important primary race, and they’ve landed in a pretty well-worn groove, rhetorically speaki —-
SA: BUT WHAT ABOUT CORDRAY??!?!!
ES: Oh, you mean Richard Cordray? The Richard Cordray?
SA: Sounds like Betty Sutton in the press room afterwards. NO-SHOW!
ES: Precisely. I thought that was weird, too. Aside from Scene, there were only two other reporters covering the debate.
SA: Plus Castele, don't forget, roving the premises like a seismologist.
ES: Point is — c’mon — you’ve got to get some face time with the press! The other three candidates were very congenial in the press room.
SA: Consider me your choir, preacher man. One of the big narrative threads on the Democratic side is that the four candidates haven’t successfully differentiated themselves from one another. All they do is agree! Do you feel that they carved out any individual territory last night? I feel like Nan Whaley, just for example, was pushing a more Bernie-ish progressive angle, calling out lobbyists and CEOs and big special interests more than her counterparts.
ES: Whaley definitely took a grassroots stance. She’s a mayor, after all, and advocated in several answers for reviving the local government fund to its pre-Kasich heft. I think that’s a key distinction. For the others: Sutton has some real Washington experience, which I think she’s using to indicate some across-the-aisle skills and which will help with the GOP-dominated Statehouse. (Each candidate brought up the gerrymandering problem, by the way.)
SA: Wait, Betty Sutton has Washington experience? Do you mean her work with “PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA” (a name she dropped at least thrice)?
ES: She’s a big fan, and that’s really emerged as a theme to her campaign. Marcia Fudge endorsed her last month, too. Otherwise, though, Joe Schiavoni is a current state senator, and has a lot of newly introduced bills to talk about — broadband infrastructure, college affordability, etc. And Connie Pillich has some helpful leadership experience from her time in the U.S. Air Force on which to draw. She may have had the most zip in her answers last night, to my ears.
SA: In a question about transit infrastructure, Pillich mentioned that she’d been endorsed by the Amalgamated Transit Union in both Toledo and Cincinnati. That’s nothing to sneeze at. On the other hand — maybe it was the live feed in the press annex or something — I kept thinking Pillich was on the verge of tears... I’ll say this about Joe Schiavoni. He’d make one hell of a JV football coach.
ES: His halftime pep talks could be legendary, in a kinder universe.
SA: Imagine him entreating his Youngstown peewees to buy homes in Ohio down the road, in order to have half of their college loans forgiven (smart legislation that Schiavoni has introduced in the Statehouse). Riveting stuff.
ES: “You’re gonna go out there, kids, and you’re gonna secure a mortgage! And you’re gonna give that student loan debt a real whoopin’ — with the help of your O-line in Columbus!” is what he’d say.
SA: (Which I'm only now realizing was composed by Vangelis, of Blade Runner fame.) Any weak moments from the candidates?
ES: Well, it’s been said before, but none of the candidates really pounced on one another. That’s not a weak moment, per se, but at this point in the campaign it’s getting hard to see through all the Democratic party line talking points. Each candidate has some really great policy platforms, but they didn’t use this moment — five months out from the primary election — to stake a real claim. I also thought they could have gone after Cordray even more, if only to brace for impact.
SA: Pillich really attacked him — basically called him a traitor for abandoning his post at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. On the other point, the same sort of dynamic obtained during the Cleveland mayoral primaries. With limited exceptions, the challengers focused their attacks on incumbent Frank Jackson, not on one another.
ES: Right. And look how that ended.
SA: Ahem. Let’s end on presentation and style points. Because if you’re not going to say it, bud, I will: Nan Whaley has an incredibly warm and maternal presence at the lectern! She does! Not only was I finding myself on board with her platform — money back to local governments, death to Big Pharma — I think she can win over a not-insubstantial number of on-the-fence voters on the strength of vibe alone. She doesn’t smell like Washington, you know what I mean? She smells like Dayton. She gets the frustration of Ohioans who voted for Trump.
ES: There’s something to be said for mayoral experience in a race for the governor’s office. And that’s a key point: There are a lot of Trump voters in Ohio who will be looking for something comprehendible in 2018, something oriented toward small businesses, labor rights and “the dignity of work,” as Whaley herself said. The Trump thing is unavoidable in a race like this.
SA: Schiavoni mentioned it, too. He said he never begins a meeting talking about 2016, but that realistically, the only way Dems can win is if they snag Trump crossover voters. In fact, he called himself the only candidate (at least among the debaters) who’d be electable statewide. He thinks his Youngstown-area connections will be a valuable asset.
ES: And they will be. This is an 88-county race, no doubt, and the Mahoning Valley represents the 2016 electoral shift better than almost any other part of the state. It’s steel country. A former manufacturing hub. His bonafides there will mean a lot — and, again, he’s got this very active legislative record to point to when voters want proof of what a candidate will do in office.
SA: “You’re gonna go out there, kids, and you’re gonna secure a mortgage!” Before we part ways, is there room to note my appreciation for moderators Russ Mitchell of WKYC and Karen Kasler of the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau? Absolute pros, those two.