One of the biggest complaints about politics is that candidates rarely discuss the issues that most matter to voters.
This weekend, a group of Akron-area residents will get an opportunity to hear directly from two competing members of Congress about key economic issues in the 16th District.
The 24 participants in the Jefferson Action program will question U.S. Reps. Jim Renacci and Betty Sutton today about the economy, unemployment and the federal deficit. They then will decide Sunday how well they think each candidate would tackle these complex topics — and how good of a job they’ve done in communicating their plans to voters in their campaigns.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow with the candidates,” Hilary, 54, of Norton, one of the participants, said Friday. “To have them here and be able to ask them questions about issues that affect us. How many people actually have that opportunity — ever?”
(Jefferson Action requested that the participants not be fully identified until the weekend-long process is completed.)
The unusual process has sparked interest, with numerous media outlets, including NPR, Ohio Public Radio, the Plain Dealer and the Canton Repository, planning to cover this weekend’s activities. Renacci and Sutton have bought into the idea, even asking for more time than they were originally allotted — going from an hour each to 75 minutes.
Jefferson Action, a nonprofit group based in St. Paul, Minn., hopes the citizen-involvement process being used to evaluate the 16th District will help to elevate the discussion in this campaign — one of the mostly hotly contested in the country — and can be replicated in future races in Ohio and elsewhere.
“We want to provide a model for what political conversations could look like,” said Kyle Bozentko, director of policy and research for Jefferson Action.
Jefferson Action’s involvement locally began in July, when the organization brought together a group of voters from the 16th District to decide what economic issues they thought were paramount in the district.
They concluded that weak economic growth, unemployment and the federal debt/deficit were the key topics.
Jefferson Action then convened a second group of 16th District voters who met last month to bone up on the issues identified by the first group. They heard from numerous professors and experts, who broke down the issues for them, while providing insight into how political campaigns operate. They also learned about the best way to ask questions and what to do if the person being questioned evades giving a true response.
The voters on Friday listened to a presentation from Bozentko about the information the Renacci and Sutton campaigns have so far put out through emails, mailings and ads. They then met for a half-hour each with Anthony DeAngelo, who heads the Sutton campaign, and James Slepian, who leads Renacci’s campaign. At the end of the day, they began getting their questions prepared for Renacci and Sutton.
The participants will question Renacci and then Sutton today — an order determined by the toss of a coin. They will reconvene one last time on Sunday to evaluate the candidates on the three key issues and the campaigns on how well they’ve addressed them.
The group won’t make an endorsement for one candidate over the other.
Jefferson Action strove to assemble a group of voters that was politically and demographically representative of the 16th District.
And so, they are: half men and half women; about a third each Democrat, Republican and independent; range in age from 18 to 60 or older; and hail from across the district.
Wanda, 66, of Orrville, a retired bookkeeper, said she asked herself, “What did I get myself into?” when she found out she had been chosen to participate. She said her husband told her, “Go for it!” and she decided to follow his advice.
“Overwhelming,” was the word she used to describe the process so far.
When the participants meet with the candidates, they will work off of a list of guidelines they’ve developed about how to get a clear response, how to ask an effective question, and verbal and nonverbal clues, including maintaining eye contact, not using emotionally charged language and demonstrating relaxed body language.
Richard, 37, of Suffield Township, a field technician, predicts that the participants won’t have any problem keeping the candidates on topic and getting the answers they want.
“With this group of people, if the candidates try to sidetrack, they will be put back in line,” he said.
“I second that,” Hilary said.
The participants tried out their question-asking skills Friday on the campaign managers.
DeAngelo said he thought his discussion with the voters “went incredibly well.”
“It was a fantastic opportunity to talk to these voters who are well-informed,” he said. “They asked poignant questions. We had a fantastic dialogue about issues that, not only people participating in this, but voters throughout the district, are focused on.”
Slepian said he talked at length with the participants about the outside money that is being spent on the campaign by supporters and detractors for both candidates. Jefferson Action estimates that outside groups have spent nearly $4 million so far on the campaign. These groups are permitted to spend unfettered amounts, though they are prohibited from having any contact with the candidate’s campaigns.
“The TV ads that are running are not really an effective way to communicate on issues,” Slepian said he heard from the participants. “We couldn’t agree more.”
Both campaign managers said that the candidates are excited to meet with the participants.
The group’s activities this weekend will be broadcast live on Jefferson Action’s website, http://jeffersonaction.org/. The sessions with Renacci and Sutton will be put on the website after both are done speaking to remove any potential advantage of one candidate over the other. The group also will report the evaluations on its website Sunday.