Friday, March 29, 2013

Candidates Clash at Canyon Creek

Richardson's mayoral election campaign heated up Wednesday night at the first forum for mayoral candidates Laura Maczka and Amir Omar. Interest was high as hundreds of voters overflowed the room. The candidates gave the standing-room-only crowd plenty to talk about.

First, some business that has nothing to do with the mayoral election. The forum was jointly sponsored by the Dallas County North Republican Club and the Richardson Republican Women. It was held at the Canyon Creek Country Club. Here, I'm obligated by my punditry license to insert a joke stereotyping GOP demographics: anyone who thinks that Republicans are a party of old white men, well, I can assure you that's not true. There were some women in the audience as well.

Both candidates were articulate, knowledgeable, and passionate about serving Richardson. Both have the experience and demeanor to serve as mayor. There were no gaffes to walk back or "oops" moments to be embarrassed about. Richardson will be well served with either candidate as mayor.

That said, I do have some random observations that voters might want to consider. After the jump, the forum details.

After two election campaigns in which Amir Omar hardly even mentioned his opponents, Omar drew sharp distinctions with Maczka in this forum. He's running an underdog's campaign, chipping away at his opponent's image, while Maczka is running the typical frontrunner's campaign, staying positive, vague, and heavy on the platitudes.

The venue was in Maczka's Canyon Creek backyard. Her supporters formed the majority of the audience. The questions asked of the candidates were stacked against Omar, with several obviously intended to reveal facts about his personal life that presumably could hurt his campaign. He handled them well, from a political viewpoint, either setting the record straight or owning up to old mistakes without revealing too much information. To her credit, Maczka did nothing to promote the insinuations behind the questions.

Other questions were, how to put this diplomatically, wacko. Someone wanted to know the candidates' opinions about fluoridated water. Someone wanted to know the candidates' opinions about the UN's Agenda 21 program for sustainable development. The candidates didn't completely reassure me with their answers. More on that later.

There were more surprises in the candidates' answers than I would have predicted.

I didn't expect Omar to highlight his differences with a prominent establishment leader, whom he did not name, quite so explicitly. He told of being warned that if he voted to put the question of direct election of the mayor before the voters in a referendum, he'd have a hard time winning re-election. He said he took the principled stand anyway whereas Maczka led the opposition to changing the city charter.

I didn't expect Maczka to forget all about the Richardson Coalition PAC when she denied having any endorsements from political action committees. She came back later to correct herself, explaining that she didn't consider the Richardson Coalition to be, in fact, a PAC. Really?!? It's incredible that a candidate for Richardson's highest elective office can be that oblivious about, well, Richardson politics. Maczka also bragged about having the endorsements of 16 of the last 18 Richardson city council members while at the same time professing not to know whether she should be considered the establishment candidate or not. Really?!?

I also didn't expect Maczka, when asked for three issues the next council will face, to pick as her first issue a city charter review. Omar pounced, pointing out that the council considered just such a charter review in 2012 and voted overwhelmingly not to do one, with Maczka in the majority. Why should voters believe her this time, he wondered in a pointed response.

I didn't expect Omar to identify crime reduction as his top issue, creating a narcotics unit in the Richardson Police Department specifically. Maybe I just missed his interest in this issue all along, or maybe this is payback for the endorsement by the Richardson Fraternal Order of Police. In any case, it's one of two specific new proposals offered by Omar, the other being partnering with the RISD on sharing the cost and usage of natatoriums.

Maczka offered no specific new programs that she would champion in the next council term, despite saying at one point that she's all about innovation and new ideas. Twice, when accused by Omar of not asking tough questions on city council, Maczka said she always asks, how are we going to pay for this? That probably plays well with a conservative electorate, but it's hardly the hallmark of an innovative thinker. Shouldn't the candidate of innovation and new ideas be the one coming up with not only the innovative ideas but also with the innovative ways to accomplish them in an affordable manner?

Not surprisingly, the question of leadership played a big role in the debate. Omar, perhaps out of necessity, played up his taking principled stands that ruffled the feathers of the Richardson establishment. Maczka, perhaps out of necessity, said her leadership style is to "lead from the back." (Ironically, the GOP audience was receptive to this, the same GOP that excoriated a certain President for "leading from behind" in overthrowing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.) Maczka's strongest argument on leadership was that all the current council members have endorsed her for mayor. Omar tried, unconvincingly to me, to argue that the council would work equally well with either as mayor.

Finally, back to those wacko questions. Both candidates said they supported fluoridation of public water supplies, but Maczka smilingly prefaced that with an offhand comment that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Maybe she was trying to have it both ways: stating that she's not a crazy person herself while signaling to the anti-fluoridation crowd that she doesn't entirely dismiss their fear of fluoride as crazy, either.

As for Agenda 21, both candidates expressed support for sustainable development while simultaneously distancing themselves from voluntary efforts that actually promote, you know, sustainable development (e.g., ICLEI). Maczka went so far as to accuse the two-decade-old UN Agenda 21 non-binding agreement (178 nations in 1992) of hijacking concepts like bike lanes from local governments like Richardson. Really?!? I wish I could say Maczka doesn't really believe that Agenda 21 is a conspiracy to impose one world government, but her answer suggests that maybe she's got a little tin-foil hat somewhere in the back of her closet.

I look forward to your cards and letters. But before you write me an angry email accusing me of being too hard on either candidate, remember what I said at the top: both candidates were articulate, knowledgeable, and passionate about serving Richardson. Both have the experience and demeanor to serve as mayor. Richardson will be well served with either candidate as mayor.