COPLEY TWP.: Many area residents spent their Saturday shepherding kids to soccer or mowing the lawn.
But 23 waded into the fine points of economic stimuli, gross domestic product and tax policy.
Participants in the nonpartisan Jefferson Action forum had the rare opportunity to question two Congressional veterans vying to represent the new 16th District in Northeast Ohio.
Democrat Betty Sutton and Republican Jim Renacci hammered home their disparate views in separate closed-door meetings with the panelists.
The project seeks to help panelists understand the complex policy that undergirds campaigns.
“Remember our ground rule: Stay in learning mode,” advised a handwritten poster on the wall of the Radisson Inn.
The nonprofit Jefferson Action, based in St. Paul, Minn., chose the Renacci-Sutton race for the forum because the congressional race is one of the most closely watched in the country.
Sutton’s district was eliminated in the last round of redistricting after the census. Rather than retiring, she chose to go after Renacci’s seat in the 16th District, which now is made up of all of Wayne County and parts of Summit, Stark, Medina, Cuyahoga and Portage counties.
The two candidates represent stark differences in philosophy: She voted for the 2010 health law, for example, and he wants to repeal it.
The candidates also have sparred over where and when to debate, although both were so interested in the Jefferson Action project that they chose to extend their individual interviews with the panelists from 60 to 75 minutes.
They did so before potential voters who were perhaps unusually well prepared.
Last month, Jefferson Action led the panelists through a crash course in public policy to decide what questions to ask Renacci and Sutton. On Friday, panelists met with the candidates’ campaign managers.
Candidates face panelists
On Saturday, the rubber met the road: The 12 female and 11 male panelists asked the candidates the same questions about economic growth, unemployment, the federal deficit and debt.
“What is the process that you personally use to evaluate proposed policy to determine your vote?” “What is the impact of underemployment here in our district?” and “How will you bring Congress together to actually get these proposals implemented?” were among the questions.
Renacci emphasized what he said was his acumen in job development.
In private business for 28 years, he said he created more than 1,500 jobs and employed 3,000 people.
He said local business owners tell him they won’t expand their work force until they have some certainty that taxes, health care and other costs are in check. The marketplace needs certainty and predictability, he said.
He also pointed out several times that he and fellow Congressman John Carney of Delaware, a Democrat, assembled what came to be a 16-person bipartisan work group.
He wants that group to grow to undermine some of the deadlock in Congress, he said.
His solutions: reduce tax rates, reduce regulatory burdens and control health-care costs.
Sutton emphasized her sponsorship of the Cash for Clunkers Act to rev up the auto industry. She said the legislation led to the sale of 700,000 cars, saved 60,000 jobs and generated revenue for local governments.
She also emphasized her influence in making Northeast Ohio a center in the fight against corrosion, which she said costs the country $400 billion a year in repairs to bridges, military tanks and the like.
She helped the University of Akron to gain funding for the National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance.
These are examples of the innovative policy she advocates to jump-start economic growth, she said.
She would take a multifaceted approach to decrease the budget deficit, but there’s no “magic bullet” that will solve the country’s problems, she said.
Jefferson Action’s approach to the race brought kudos from at least one bystander.
“I really think this is the best way to evaluate candidates,” said Copley Township trustee Helen Humphrys, one of the few outsiders to watch the interviews in person.
Identities kept private
As for panelists, they took notes on the presentations but made no personal comments. Little is known about them right now — just, in most cases, their first name, age, occupation and hometown.
Jefferson Action has kept their identities private to reduce the risk that they might be contacted by the public or the campaigns themselves. The panelists’ names will be released today when the exercise is complete.
However, the retirees, students, truck driver, customer service representative and sales engineer, among others, won’t determine who “won” the exercise — just who had the best-prepared and most workable responses to the questions.
They will compile a voters’ guide to help other voters understand the issues.
The candidates sometimes found it hard to wade through the issues themselves, at least in the compact amount of time allotted by Jefferson Action.
Organizers sounded a chime 14 times to tell Renacci he had exceeded his time limit. It sounded 23 times for Sutton.
Transcripts of both candidates’ presentations are available at www.jeffersonaction.org.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.