As a candidate for any elected office you’ll be asked to participate in public forums and debates. This is a part of the political process that in America dates back to the colonial days. While attendance may not be as robust today, your participation in candidate forums and debates is required if you’re serious about participating.
Now this might surprise you, but the most important thing about debates and forums to your candidacy isn’t necessarily your answers to the questions thrown your way. The most important aspect is actually your attendance.
You don’t have to have the best answers for questions, the event does not need to be in a friendly environment, nor does the room need to be packed. You just need to be there and participate.
This is a lesson I unfortunately learned the hard way. In 2010 I was working for the re-election campaign of Rod Pacheco, the District Attorney of Riverside County, California.
Rod had been extremely successful and aggressive district attorney in his quest to reduce crime and make the communities he served safer.
This of course made him a polarizing figure and center for a great deal of controversy. During his re-election campaign he did not want to participate in many forums with his opponent, a sitting judge and former homicide prosecutor named Paul Zellerbach.
Rod believed, and I concurred, that most of the forums and debates held in the contest would be controlled by his opponents supporters. Given that Rod’s four years of success in lowering violent crime by targeting street gangs was highly publicized, we didn’t believe Rod had anything to gain by going to the forums and getting beat up by people who would never vote for him anyway.
While it was true that Rod had nothing to gain by participating in such forums and debates, he had plenty to lose.
The media in Riverside County at the time was very much anti-Pacheco. The Zellerbach campaign framed Rod’s absence from the forums to portray him as ducking the hard questions he’d be asked if he participated.
Having known and worked for Rod Pacheco since 1997, I knew this was 100% untrue. Like Andrew Jackson, Rod was born for the storm. The calm does not suit him. But with the media’s megaphone claiming he was ducking the debate, the voters who didn’t know Rod that well were turned off when he didn’t show up to debate.
Rod Pacheco did go toe-to-toe with Paul Zellerbach in one forum and by all accounts, including Zellerbach’s supporters in the media, Rod easily bested his challenger. As one columnist who frequently used his pen to stab at Pacheco wrote:
Zellerbach rarely missed a chance to rip DA Rod Pacheco for not showing up to debates. When Pacheco and Zellerbach finally did square off – near a wedding canopy in a Banning restaurant – Pacheco cleaned Zellerbach’s wonky clock.
But even though Rod had man-handled Zellerbach that day, the damage to his candidacy had already had already been done. A few weeks later, the voters of Riverside County removed Rod Pacheco from the DA’s office.
In our post-election analysis, my former business partner and I reviewed the race in its entirety.
We came to the conclusion that the failure to participate in the majority of debates and forums had handed the Zellerbach campaign and the local press the issue they needed to portray our candidate as arrogant and elitist.
That’s a brand that’s nearly impossible for any candidate to overcome, even one with a stellar record in reducing crime like Rod Pacheco.
That’s why to this day I advise all candidates to participate in nearly all of the forums and the debates you are invited to be a part of.
There may only be a handful of people there. You may be nervous speaking to a crowd of strangers. The questions and the audience may be stacked against you. None of that matters. It’s all part of the job as a candidate and an elected official.
What matters most of all is showing up to the forum and doing your best.
Because the voters need to believe you want the job you are running for. Not being part of forums and debates is like not showing up for an interview for a job you’re seeking. The voters look up and see an empty chair on the stage and not you. That’s a horrible image and it’s nearly impossible to overcome once it sticks.
Sure you may be the best qualified person. Maybe you don’t interview all that well. But if you show up and are sincere and honest in your answers to the questions asked of you, there’s a good chance you’ll get the position you’re after.