I don’t know how many forums for candidates chasing City Council, State Assembly and Senate, and U.S. congressional seats I’ve moderated since my first 18 years ago. With as few as one some years, and up to seven in others, it’s hard to keep track. Further, when trying to tally my “good time” credits, I include the hours it takes to prepare for a forum.
If I’m one day called upon to recount contributions made to the community — whether outside pearly gates, or peering up at a judge about to sentence me for an episode of road rage when I snap at the madness in the parking lot outside Costco — I confess I expect credit for these deeds, including an upgrade for having spent my time at most forums standing.
But to claim credit for the time given to these efforts, I must also accept responsibility when they’re misused or abused. And to that end, I’ve made a unilateral decision to stop asking this season’s council candidates a question arising time and again at forums:
“Where do you stand on lowering the U.S. flag at City Hall to honor the Day of Remembrance acknowledging the Armenian Genocide?”
That question, or far ruder, more confrontational versions, has been submitted by audience members at three forums already.
When I listened to candidates respond at one forum last week (yes, I do listen, which is why I’m sometimes distracted from my charts, upcoming questions and the timer), I found myself convinced by the sentiments well expressed by virtually all of them. The question is being used, not to elicit information, but to create divisions. It is being used to fuel hatred and drive wedges. Voters are being manipulated.
For a tiny handful in forum audiences, any answer less than a vitriolic denunciation of the suggestion as a direct attack on the United States is characterized as treasonous and traitorous.
For others dotted among forum attendees, refusing to insist on lowering the flag is painted as an endorsement of the genocide, or a denial that millions died.
As we’ve seen on the national and state fronts, such tactics are now common.
By portraying one candidate as a “pal” of terrorists, and another as an unprincipled puppet, camps are able to divide voters. Religious beliefs are manipulated for these endeavors, as are cynicism and suspicion of corruption. Frankly, I want no part in fostering the repugnant tactic in Glendale.
Anyone familiar with my work over the last 20 years knows I reject a premise of many — that it is somehow improper to ask candidates tough questions addressing aspects of their record or platforms they may find embarrassing, or that inflame voters. I’m as irked by the vague “we have to cut the waste!” and “we need more cops on the street!” answers as anyone. Remember, I have to stand through hours of that pabulum.
I do try to keep forums lighthearted, engaging in banter with candidates and occasionally getting a laugh or two, even amid the questions. Whether at my expense or theirs, it helps the process of getting as much information and as many commitments out as possible in two or three hours, also keeping the audience engaged. But the point is to get to the facts, usually a number of them.
My decision to forgo the “flag question” is not premised on a desire to avoid controversy or dissent. Rather, I’m convinced that, with the city facing myriad serious problems, discussing one that doesn’t actually exist — a proposal that was made, considered and decided upon years ago — is being used to divide voters long before they consider the candidates and their positions on urgent matters that have a direct impact on daily life.
Answers candidates give on a proposal that doesn’t exist, except as a speculative “what if,” are being parsed and spun. This as the condition of streets declines, children are run down and killed, gang members shoot one another and bystanders, intersections approach gridlock, some parts of the city insist their needs are ignored, and a budget deficit looms. At the same time, there are city services, parks, theaters and many other aspects of Glendale life that warrant commendation.
I apologize to those sponsoring the three forums left on my schedule for this election season. When they invited me — some almost a year ago — they didn’t count on a moderator who would unilaterally refuse to ask one particular question. I’ve never done it before, and they’re entitled to believe I’ve overstepped.
On the other hand, when I informed some members of the group sponsoring a forum I moderated this past weekend, they expressed nothing but support.
Perhaps the others will feel the same, but I’ll understand if they immediately begin pursuing replacement moderators.
In the end, I thank all of the candidates for pointing me to this conclusion.
WILL ROGERS is a Burbank resident.