Nickens: Demystifying candidate recommendations

Published Oct. 7, 2016

Here we go.

Today, we kick off our candidate recommendations in print for the general election by recommending Hillary Clinton for president and Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate. We will work our way through the elected offices, state constitutional amendments and local issues over the next 11 days.

I know many voters received their ballots in the mail last week and are eager to color in the tiny ovals and be done with it. If you are in a hurry, our recommendations generally will be available at at least a day before they appear in print. We posted our Clinton recommendation on the website at noon Thursday, and it immediately took off with thousands of views. We will keep a running list of links to the recommendations on the website, so you can catch up on any you might miss and read them in full.

With voting taking place for more than a month, it remains a balancing act to research the candidates and publish our recommendations soon enough for voters itching to fill out their ballots but late enough to allow the campaigns to unfold and for voters who go to the polls on election day. We're starting earlier than ever, but judging from some of the calls and emails I received last week, it still may not be soon enough.

For this year's primary and general elections, the Times editorial board members interviewed 88 candidates — including groups promoting or opposing constitutional amendments and local ballot questions in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. We started June 30 with Florida Senate candidate Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, and we ended Monday with another chat with U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy.

In between?

A Florida House candidate showed up pushing a baby carriage that he parked just inside the editorial board meeting room. I thought it was a campaign prop and didn't realize until he was headed back toward the elevator that there was a dachshund inside. That was a first.

A Florida Senate candidate in Tampa asked if we were serving breakfast when he scheduled a morning appointment. Nope. When we asked him for a campaign photo, he sent one with a white parrot perched on his shoulder. He explained the parrot is his financial adviser, because he lines the birdcage with the stock pages and … you get the idea.

Some situations are more sad than funny. A desperate dad decided to run for the Pinellas School Board because he couldn't get the district to help him find the right school for his troubled daughter. We wanted to help, but the answer was not elected office.

There are bright spots.

It's fun to catch up with state legislators, county commissioners and school board members to hear about work they have been doing that we may have missed. It's reassuring to meet first-time candidates brave enough to seek public office, well-informed and already serving their communities in valuable ways. It's inspiring to talk to younger candidates, including some still in college, who are smart, idealistic — and learning some hard truths about elections.

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Overall, the quality of candidates in the Tampa Bay area too often is disappointing. Too many who visit with us don't know the issues well, have thin records of community involvement, can't raise money and have few volunteers. That seems to be the case most often in legislative races — and more often with Democrats than Republicans.

Still, voters are going to have to make a choice. That is one reason why the editorial board does not skip races with unappealing candidates. Someone is going to be elected, and we feel a responsibility to recommend the best candidate available in a particular race. Readers sometimes point out we recommend candidates for Congress and the Legislature, then spend years criticizing them for their votes and policy decisions. That's true. But we play the hand we are dealt, and the editorial board is not going to recommend unprepared candidates merely because they agree with our positions on a key issue or two.

Beyond interviewing candidates, we send them questionnaires to seek detailed information about their personal backgrounds and experience. We ask questions about policy issues. We run criminal background checks, civil court checks, driving record checks and bankruptcy checks. We look at their financial disclosure statements for potential conflicts. We look at their voting records if they are incumbents, and we examine their charitable and volunteer work if they are first-time candidates. We often interview people who have served with them in public office or on the boards of directors of public or private groups. We attend candidate forums and watch debates.

It's doubtful today's recommendation for president changed many minds. Voters already know plenty about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But I know from my calls and emails that the editorial board's work helps voters make their choices in races closer to home when the candidates are less familiar — and on constitutional amendments and local ballot issues.

We take this work seriously, and we spend plenty of time on it. We hope our recommendations educate voters and help them make informed decisions.