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Tim Nickens

A look behind the editorial board's recommendations

Thousands of Florida voters are just now focusing on the Aug. 24 primary election, evaluating candidates and making choices. In that regard, the Times editorial board has finished its work.

Today's recommendations for governor conclude our recommendations of candidates in the primary, now just over two weeks away (go to www.tampabay.com/opinion to see the full list and read the ones you missed). It's important work that we take seriously, and it might be helpful to pull back the curtain to see how it works. The editorial board can be a mysterious place even to those who work in other departments at the newspaper.

For this primary election, editorial board members interviewed 121 candidates for offices ranging from U.S. Senate to governor to the Legislature to school board in four counties. It should have been at least 122 candidates, but Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott declined our invitation to talk. If Scott wins the primary, we will extend another invitation.

The candidate interviews take place at our offices in Brooksville, Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa. They last roughly 45 minutes, or a bit longer for candidates for statewide office. News reporters and an editor or two often attend, but they play no role in determining the editorial board's candidate recommendations. The interviews are on the record, which means anything the candidate says can wind up in a news story or an editorial.

The interviews can be intimidating, particularly for first-time candidates. But we try to make them informal, and they are intended to help us get to know the candidates and understand their positions. We ask hard questions, and we expect coherent answers. We made four candidates cry this time, which may be an editorial board record. But let's not dwell on that.

The editorial board interviews are one part of the process. We also send candidates questionnaires, asking about personal history, job experience, volunteer efforts and any legal problems or criminal records. It is not about being voyeuristic. It is about gauging candidates' involvement in their community and state — and looking for potential conflicts of interest if they are elected. Candidates also have been known to pad their job experience or educational backgrounds.

Editorial board members do their own reporting. We check public records, voting records of incumbents and conduct more interviews. Then we are prepared to discuss which candidates to recommend.

• Why does the Times recommend candidates and not endorse them?

It's a nuance, but an important one. To endorse implies a fuller embrace and a longer-term relationship with a political candidate than we are comfortable making. To recommend signals that given the particular field of candidates in a specific race, this is the candidate we have concluded is best prepared to act in the public interest.

• Why not skip some races with unappealing candidates?

Like many voters, we wish there were better choices in particular races. Unlike many voters and some newspaper editorial boards, we won't skip races even when we don't especially care for any of the candidates. Someone is going to be elected, and we feel a responsibility to recommend the best choice.

• Why aren't the recommendations signed by the editorial board member who writes them?

The candidate recommendations represent the conclusions reached by the Times' editorial board, not one person's opinion. Often, there is unanimous agreement. Sometimes, there isn't. It's actually best when there are different viewpoints at least at the beginning, because that usually produces a stronger, more reasoned opinion. Unlike the Supreme Court, there is no formal voting on the editorial board. No minority opinions are published. We reach a general consensus.

• Why does the Times recommend only Democrats?

That is a common misconception. For general elections, we have often recommended Republicans for the U.S. House, the Legislature, county commissions and other local offices. We also have previously recommended Republicans for the state Cabinet and for U.S. Senate.

The Times has not recommended a Republican for president or for governor — but that day is coming.

One issue we are still wrestling with: The timing of recommendations. The emphasis on voting by mail forced us to publish our choices about a week earlier than usual. Other newspapers started even sooner. But we don't want to make recommendations too early. Leaving too much time between making our selections and election day would increase the possibility of a development that changes our minds about a candidate and forces us to withdraw our original recommendation. That has happened rarely in the past, and too much of that would not be good.

Like many voters, I wish there were better candidates in some races. I wish we could recommend more fresh faces, but too many first-time candidates are unprepared or unqualified for office. I wish there weren't so many candidates for the Legislature and local races whose personal finances are a mess and who appear to be looking for a paycheck.

Not that this is all grim work. There are always a handful of interesting first-time candidates who are a pleasure to meet — the owner of a small air conditioning company, the young community organizer, the retired elementary school principal.

Then there are the moments when you can't help but smile. One candidate insisted she is plagued by "extreme foresightedness.'' Another noted on the way out the door that he and I are transplanted Hoosiers. He quizzed me about my knowledge of Indiana University's long-suffering football program.

Last time the Hoosiers went to the Rose Bowl?

After the 1967 season.

Opponent?

University of Southern California.

USC's star at the time?

O.J. Simpson.

I passed the test. We shared a laugh. He still didn't get the editorial board's recommendation.

A look behind the editorial board's recommendations 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 7:33pm]
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