Debating the debates

Case in point: Three-term Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett chose not to participate in a forum on Feb. 17 with his three opponents.

It was organized by the Black Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Oklahoma City and community members at Fairview Missionary Baptist Church, 1700 NE Seventh St. About 100 people attended. It was the first forum of this election cycle.

Candidates Ed Shadid, Joe “Sarge” Nelson and Phil Hughes were in attendance.

Shadid in particular was quick to point out Cornett’s absence. A second forum was set for Feb. 25, and Cornett also declined that meeting.

Richard Johnson, chairman of Oklahoma City University’s political science department, said there are benefits and downfalls to an incumbent choosing not to debate.

“Debates allow people to become more involved in the process other than just writing a check or voting,” he said. “They get to hear the candidates address each other on the issues. It also allows voters to reflect on the issues that matter to them and to see a clear discussion of the visions the candidates have for Oklahoma City.”

Shadid, Oklahoma City’s Ward 2 councilman, pointed the finger at Cornett, and was behind a person in a chicken suit who arrived at the event with a sign asking why Cornett was not there.

“An election should be more than 30-second sound bites and professionally made television ads,” Shadid said.

“It’s our civic duty to debate. ...

An elected official should be able to defend their policy decisions when asked by anyone. Nothing is all good or all bad.”

Cornett is running for a fourth term after first taking office in 2004. Earlier this month, his campaign issued a statement addressing the reason he chose not to debate.

“Every day, Mayor Cornett is meeting with voters, interacting on social media
and answering questions about the issues,” the statement read. “He is
the most accessible and transparent candidate in the race. Currently,
Mayor Cornett is the only candidate conducting a positive campaign
focused on the issues. If that changes, he will continue to consider a

Strategy explained
decision could be harmful to his chances of reelection, Johnson said,
but on the other hand, it was perhaps a politically savvy move since he
likely perceived it as chance for Shadid to go negative.

would the mayor want to debate? He’s got name recognition, he’s a
popular mayor and he’s riding the success of the MAPS brand,”
he said, referencing the Metropolitan Area Projects 3 plan. “What does
he have to gain by debating? If they think they have an advantage, they
may not want to debate.”

Hardt, professor of political science at the University of Central
Oklahoma, said it often does not make good political sense for an
incumbent to walk into a debate in which he will have to defend his
record, especially when there is nothing he is openly avoiding.

said an incumbent who turns down a debate must be willing to state his
political views clearly. That said, not showing up can have its

“On the
negative side, if you don’t show up to one of those debates, as the
incumbent, it makes it look like you either have something to hide or
you don’t feel your record can stand up to public scrutiny,” she said.
“Or you’re kind of cowardly.”

unlike some politicians, Hardt said Cornett does not have a negative
reputation. She contrasted Cornett with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie,
who has often been portrayed as brash. When Christy was entangled in a
scandal over lane closures on a bridge recently and was painted as a
bully, people were more likely to believe it.

In Cornett’s case, Hardt said he has a record he obviously does not believe he needs to defend.

“If that’s not the case, then that’s not an issue,” she said.

another candidate forum is scheduled that is solely about election
issues and lacked antagonism, Hardt said the mayor should attend.

“Either your record stands or your record does not stand,” she said.

the Feb. 17 mayoral candidate forum, a guest showed up in a chicken
suit with a sign that read, “Why won’t Mick debate?” Tactics like that
feed political theater and may draw laughs, but Hardt said the chicken
suit is unlikely to sway voters since it does not feed into a
long-running perception of the mayor.