In this week’s historic televised debate for mayor of Baltimore, which of the following was the most memorable feature:
- City Council President Brandon M. Scott’s audio sounding as if he were talking from somewhere along the Jones Falls Expressway during rush hour?
- The TV Zoom mechanism that unfortunately kept switching to a close-up of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young whenever his phone rang or his water bottle banged on his desk, no matter which of his opponents happened to be speaking?
- The format itself?
The debate was held Wednesday evening, May 13, but the remarks of the six candidates were so profound, so textured and wise that we will hear them quoted for the rest of our lives … or until dawn of the next morning.
But enough of the small stuff.
Congratulations to WBAL-TV and Maryland Public Television for linking up all the major Democratic candidates through the modern Zoom miracle.
But shame on whichever political geniuses thought up the debate’s format.
Whoever imagined you can have a debate among six people for the most important office in the city and do it in one hour, and therefore demand the candidates limit their answers on the most crucial issues of our time to one minute?
Take the issue of crime, for example. Every candidate agreed this is the biggest challenge facing Baltimore. But we’ve had the brightest minds among us arguing for the past half-century about how to reduce crime – and getting nowhere.
And so in the midst of the latest troubles — with homicides climbing despite people staying inside their homes during a vast health crisis, and the ongoing contentiousness between police and racial minorities, and the frightening poverty as more people are jobless and increasingly desperate — we’re asking these candidates to tell us, in 60 seconds, how they can change this?
Even if they had an answer – and that’s debatable in itself – how could these folks lay it out in a single minute?
It’s not just that they deserve better; it’s that the city itself deserves better, a better accounting of who’s got the best approach to handling the vast array of Baltimore’s problems.
We live in a time of plague when candidates aren’t able to hold big rallies where they can stretch out ideas. We don’t have give-and-take gatherings, whether it’s the old political clubs or the more modern neighborhood meetings where people can ask questions and demand textured answers.
We don’t have a daily newspaper with the resources it used to have for digging into the candidates and their platforms (despite some terrific efforts by today’s undermanned Sun staff).
And we’ve never had local TV news operations that have paid consistent attention to government or political candidates.
So a couple of TV stations threw us all a bone the other night. In the race for the most important office in Baltimore, they divided a whole 60 minutes among six candidates. That’s 10 minutes apiece to explain, as thoroughly as possible, how to salvage a city on the skids.
That’s impossible, and they proved it.
Maybe it’s just as well we couldn’t hear whatever poor Brandon Scott was trying to tell us through that botched audio system.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).