My predecessor in this job retired at the end of May. Before leaving, he warned me about election season, in particular the month-long process of making political recommendations. The Times Editorial Board schedules interviews, talks with candidates and looks into their backgrounds before making the selections and writing the recommendations. I now have a better appreciation for why he retired when he did.
In June and July, we vetted about 90 candidates in 32 races in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The contests included everyone from newcomers running for Congress to incumbents looking for another term on local school boards. Some came prepared with facts and well-honed policy ideas. Others spouted tired political tropes about “job creators,” “right-wing demagogues” and the army of “career politicians.” And can we officially retire any phrase that starts with “The war on …”?
Seriously though, a hat tip to anyone courageous enough to run for public office. While not all the candidates we reviewed were ready to serve, most were earnest and thoughtful. Without candidates, democracy doesn’t work.
As for our process, I’ll note first that the reporters and editors in the news department have no say in the recommendations. Also, recommendations aren’t predictions. Predicting winners would take far less time. We try to interview every candidate, at least the ones who take us up on the offer. In normal times, we would speak with them in person. This year, we used Zoom. While not ideal, it was fun to see many of the candidates in their own homes. Several cats made cameos, as did my shirtless 9-year-old son. I took part in one interview from the front seat of my pick-up when my home’s WiFi went down.
We also ask candidates to fill out questionnaires with information about their backgrounds, experience and views on policy issues. We check financial disclosures for anomalies. We often look at driving records, lawsuits, bankruptcies and criminal histories. We ask incumbents why they voted a certain way on important matters. We make sure their resumes aren’t made up. In years past, we attended debates and candidate forums. This year, we watched them on Zoom.
We also call people who know the candidates, including former bosses and colleagues. In one tough race, I interviewed more than 15 people. It’s amazing what a few phone calls can unearth. People told me privately that they had reservations about candidates whom they had publicly endorsed. That’s valuable information when compiling a recommendation.
The toughest recommendations come in races with several stellar candidates or only mediocre ones. But we always choose. We don’t pass on a race because we don’t like any of the candidates. Voters have to make a choice, so we should too. No matter how weak the field, one of the candidates will be elected, and our recommendations can help voters work through the difficult choices. That’s part of the reason why we call them recommendations, not endorsements. An endorsement can imply a level of support that makes us uncomfortable.
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Many of the candidates we don’t recommend take it graciously, often thanking us for allowing them to take part in the process. Others react in ways that would make Miss Manners cringe. They lash out like entitled middle-schoolers. A few sent passive-aggressive emails. Those types of reactions confirm why we didn’t recommend them in the first place.
During this election cycle, we were accused of being pro-police for recommending anyone in the sheriffs races and anti-prosecutor for failing to recommend two assistant state attorneys running for judge. A former sheriff complained about “our bias against conservatives,” never mind that we had recommended him several times during his political career.
Race came up in the criticisms. A few people accused us of making selections solely on “skin color” or ignoring diversity entirely, neither of which is true. Same for gender. One caller blasted me for choosing too many men. Our goal is to recommend the best candidate in each race. As it turned out, eight races included at least one Black candidate. We recommended five of them. And in races with at least one man and one woman running, we chose women slightly more often.
Another reader sent a blistering rebuke of our recommendation in the primary for Pinellas’ sheriff. He wanted us to recommend a Republican … in the Democratic primary.
I also took a few calls that went like this (I’ve cleaned up the language):
Caller: You’re a nincompoop for not recommending my candidate.
Me: Have you met the other candidates in that race?
Me: Have you spoken to them?
Me: Do you know anything about them?
Caller: No, but I know you’re a biased meathead. (Click)
No one is required to take our recommendations to heart. Our goal is to help voters make good decisions, but ultimately they make up their own minds, as that caller did. And, yes, we will do it all again for the upcoming general election. But first, we’re going to take a few weeks to recover.