Friday, February 23, 2018
Opinion

Nickens: Vetting the candidates

Either we are getting soft or the candidates are getting tougher.

Not a single candidate cried this year during interviews with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. I wanted to cry a couple of times because some candidates were so unprepared, but that's another story.

We kicked off our candidate recommendations for the Aug. 26 primary on Friday in the Hernando regional edition, and we start today on the main editorial page with the Hillsborough School Board. The recommendations will run for about eight more days on the main page as we work through nonpartisan races for judge and school boards, and primaries for county commissions, the Legislature, attorney general and governor. The Pasco and Hernando recommendations will wrap up in the regional editions on Aug. 8. We will compile links to all of the recommendations on our website at www.tampabay.com/opinion.

The recommendations are being published about a week earlier than usual — and several weeks earlier than the old days when the vast majority of voters cast their ballots on election day. Mail ballots were sent out last week, and the election has become a monthlong affair as voters take advantage of that convenience.

The trick here is to research the candidates and publish our recommendations early enough for voters who fill out their ballots nearly as soon as they get them but late enough to let the campaigns unfold. There is a risk that something happens between now and election day that would change our minds about particular candidates, such as a grossly inaccurate or racist ad. We will deal with that on a case-by-case basis and keep our fingers crossed.

For this year's primary election, editorial board members interviewed 104 candidates for offices ranging from governor to the Legislature to county commission in four counties. Candidates who had no primary opponents or inconsequential primary challengers, such as Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, will be invited for interviews before the November general election. News reporters often attend, but they play no role in determining the editorial board's candidate recommendations. The interviews are on the record, and we advise candidates that anything they say can appear in a news story or an editorial. We don't videotape the interviews to post them on the website; I want these interviews to be conversations about public policy, not news conferences offering sound bites to be repackaged in ads.

The editorial board interviews are one aspect of the process and not necessarily the most important one. We send candidates questionnaires, asking about their personal history, job experience, volunteer efforts and any legal issues or criminal records. We want to evaluate their civic involvement and knowledge of the issues, and we look for potential conflicts of interest. We check public records and voting records of incumbents. We often conduct other interviews with knowledgeable sources about the candidates' personal and professional histories. We take this work seriously, and it takes time. Many newspaper editorial boards no longer endorse candidates. Among those that sat out 2012: the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In Florida, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Gainesville Sun and other papers owned by Halifax Media Group announced in 2012 that they no longer would endorse political candidates.

I am not naive enough to believe our candidate recommendations for president sway many voters, who already know plenty about the candidates. I do believe our recommendations can be useful in state and local races, particularly as the names become less familiar and when the races are nonpartisan. Few voters closely follow the voting records of their individual legislators or county commissioners, and challengers are usually not well-known outside political circles. Candidates for judge are even less familiar, have no voting records and can't answer questions about issues such as the death penalty or abortion.

Beyond that, the newspaper editorial board should fully participate in the civic conversation. It's one thing to write idealistic opinions about what government should be doing to improve our schools (teach low-income kids to read!), provide access to health care (take that Medicaid money!) or enhance public spaces (tear down the Pier!). It's another to hold public officials accountable for their actions and to confront the same choices as voters when they fill out their ballots.

That is one reason why the editorial board does not skip some races with unappealing candidates. Someone is going to be elected, and we feel a responsibility to recommend the best choice. The Times recommends but does not endorse candidates in part because we are recommending the best candidate available in a particular race. It's a nuance, but to endorse would imply a fuller embrace than we may be comfortable making.

Readers still call looking for our candidate recommendations, and it still pleases me to see voters carrying our recommendations into polling places. Our best hope is not that our recommendations are blindly followed but that they educate voters and help them make more informed decisions. Voters can make up their own minds.

Just the same, hold on to those ballots for a few days. We've got a legislative candidate who will blow you away and several you should steer clear of and some young lawyers who would make fine judges and a Republican-turned-Democrat running for governor who will …

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