A group of voters deemed U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci to be better positioned than his opponent to deal with the economic issues facing the 16th Congressional District.
That’s the conclusion of an in-depth evaluation undertaken by 23 Akron-area voters this weekend under the leadership of Jefferson Action, a Minnesota nonprofit that works to raise citizen involvement in the political process. The group got a chance to separately interview both Renacci and his opponent, U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, and then dissected and evaluated the candidates’ positions on the issues of weak economic growth, unemployment and the federal deficit and debt.
The evaluations weren’t unanimous, and on some issues the participants diverged widely. But on average, the group scored Renacci higher than Sutton on the ability to provide real solutions to the issues and on the likelihood of success in each area.
The evaluations were the culmination of a long process shepherded this summer by Jefferson Action, which sought to elevate the political discussion in what has been a contentious campaign.
The process started in July, when Jefferson Action brought together a different group of voters to identify the most pressing issues facing the district. Then last month, it convened a second group and prepared those voters to face the candidates by giving them a crash course in such areas as economics, policymaking and campaign tactics.
This weekend, the second group came back together for three days at the Radisson Hotel Akron/Fairlawn to hear presentations from representatives of both campaigns, interview the candidates and evaluate what they’d heard.
The process was rigorous. The participants were required not just to score each candidate, but to back up their numbers with rationale.
Many members of the group believed Renacci was more specific than Sutton in his answers and ideas. In addition, several cited his business background and acumen as qualifying him to deal with economic issues.
Sutton, on the other hand, earned positive marks from several participants for her actions to boost the economy, particularly her initiation of the “Cash for Clunkers” car-rebate plan.
Renacci’s campaign also scored higher than Sutton’s, largely because many participants thought his campaign chief addressed the issues they identified more specifically than Sutton’s did.
Among the other positions that won Renacci high marks were his desire to reform the tax code, his ideas for bringing predictability to the marketplace so employers will be comfortable hiring, his support for oil and gas exploration and his ability to work with members of both parties.
Sutton was applauded for supporting a combination of austerity measures and economic stimuli, supporting policies that strengthen the middle class and promoting new industry, among other actions.
Even though the participants often disagreed, the process was noteworthy for its civil tone — a goal of the Jefferson Action organizers.
Learning about candidates
Jim Meffert, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the effort was intended to help the participants and the public learn where the candidates stand. That runs counter to the negativity that permeates many campaigns, an approach Meffert said is intended to turn voters off so they’ll be less likely to vote.
A summary of the group’s findings will be published online in the hope it will benefit other voters, he said. The Jefferson Action website is www.jeffersonaction.org.
“This is what people heard. This is what they understood. This is what they want to tell other voters,” Meffert said.
The participants called the process positive. After the session, Jim Leetch, a 72-year-old retiree from Wadsworth, told a reporter that the process even led him to change his mind about which candidate he will vote for, although he declined to say whom he supports.
Brenda Hamas, a 48-year-old Goodyear employee from Uniontown, conceded that some people will always vote along party lines. But she said she hopes the group’s findings will help others who want to identify the person who will do the best job, regardless of party affiliation.
Several of the participants admitted a new appreciation for the complexity of the issues and the work members of Congress put into addressing them. And several were buoyed by the group’s ability to differ without animosity.
“My faith in this country’s been restored over this,” said one participant during the group discussion, whom organizers identified only as a 74-year-old retired printer from Parma Heights named John. (The Jefferson Action officials did not release a full list of names during the process.)
He noted that the group represented a cross section of society, and yet the members treated one another with respect.
“There’s hope,” John said.
Do you think citizens can do a better job than professional journalists? Who will benefit from this forum?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.