In bringing a representative sample of citizens from Ohio’s 16th U.S. House District face to face with candidates Jim Renacci and Betty Sutton, a group called Jefferson Action hoped to elevate the tone and substance of the political debate in one of the toughest, most expensive congressional races in the country.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, based in St. Paul, Minn., assembled a 23-member Citizens Election Forum to meet with the candidates this past Saturday in separate, back-to-back sessions, each lasting about 75 minutes. The following day, the group issued a voter’s guide that assessed how well the candidates tackled three issues: weak economic growth, unemployment and the federal debt.
While the format — identical questions posed to each candidate, with four- and two-minute time slots to answer — kept things focused on those issues, Renacci and Sutton never strayed far from answers well-rehearsed after months on the campaign trail.
Members of the forum did get a far more detailed look at the two candidates than the average citizen could ever hope for in today’s style of campaigning, where debates are few and 30-second attack ads the weapon of choice. The candidates were careful not to criticize each other directly, and members of the forum did not invite attacks.
Renacci, a Wadsworth Republican finishing his first term, and Sutton, a three-term Democrat from Copley Township, were put in the same district when the state legislature redrew Ohio’s congressional map, reducing the number of districts from 18 to 16. It is one of only two districts in the country where incumbents of opposing parties were put in the same district.
Although the auto industry bailout and Obamacare, issues on which the candidates have deep differences, went largely unmentioned, it was clear by the end of the day that they have sharply divergent views on how to handle economic issues. (Sutton supported the auto bailout and Obamacare; Renacci, who lost an auto dealership in Wadsworth, is critical of both the auto bailout and Obamacare.)
Many of the candidates’ assertions went unchallenged, among them Renacci’s claim that the oil and gas industry is the “only driver” of economic growth in Ohio today (ignoring the auto industry). And follow-up questions sometimes failed, with Sutton evasive on how she would bring down the budget deficit and national debt, top concerns for several of the more vocal forum participants.
Renacci, who adapted well to the format, focused on cutting tax rates, cutting spending and reducing regulations to spur business growth and jobs and to solve the deficit. Sutton bravely attempted a far more nuanced approach of increasing taxes on the wealthy, cutting taxes on the middle class, targeting some programs (such as tax breaks for oil and gas companies) for oblivion, while continuing to make investments in programs that support the middle class.
Unprepared for the format, Sutton was repeatedly cut off by a moderator banging a small set of chimes. In their ratings, the citizens panel dinged Sutton, giving her lower marks for the quality of her proposals and the likelihood of their success.
While Renacci, a businessman and CPA, relentlessly criticized government spending, Sutton made it clear that she views job creation as the top priority in the short run, with deficit reduction something to be tackled in the long term.
Within the confines of the hotel ballroom where Renacci and Sutton appeared, Jefferson Action achieved limited success, keeping the candidates focused on the issues the sample of citizens wanted to talk about and steering clear of attacks.
That said, pushing experienced politicians such as Renacci (a former Wadsworth mayor) and Sutton (a former member of the Barberton City Council, the Summit County Council and the Ohio House) much beyond their talking points was an extremely difficult task for the forum participants, even with the benefit of background briefings on the issues.
So far, the only debate between the two candidates, held Wednesday at the City Club of Cleveland, took place outside the wandering confines of the 16th District. It appears unlikely that any more will be held, depriving voters of the opportunity to see the candidates for themselves in a setting that allows for a direct comparisons and at least some questions from the audience.
Sadly, into that void will be dropped more televison ads, mailers and robocalls.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.