There's a new ethos among incumbent politicians and it goes like this: Re-elect me, continue paying my five- or six-figure salary, but don't expect to see me at election time.
Incumbents are increasingly blowing off campaign forums for a variety of reasons: Their records are indefensible; they have no time for critics; or it is easier to rely on campaign contributors to manipulate their public image. This is bad for democracy.
Only four of the eight incumbents invited to appear on recent televised forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Hillsborough County bothered to show. State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district crosses the bay, confirmed but did not appear. Other no-shows: State Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, and Republican Hillsborough County Commissioners Ken Hagan and Brian Blair. None had the time.
Tampa's Tiger Bay Club, the leading bipartisan political club in the county, has had the same problem, club president April Schiff said.
These appearances give voters the chance to see their elected officials speak without a script. Having incumbents stand alongside their challengers also can help draw contrasts in the candidates' candor, style and depth on the issues. "We're seeing less and less of the incumbents," Schiff said. "I get the feeling they are overconfident and feel they don't need to do it." The big losers, as Mark Hart of the league points out, are the voters. These officeholders should show up or get out of politics.