SACRAMENTO, California — The state’s political media filled the lobby of the Senator Hotel on a warm, dry late summer evening. Seated on folding plastic chairs and hunched over card tables draped in white, the journalists did their best to make the most of a media event from which most of them, including Breitbart News, had been shut out.
The candidates had already been led into a separate studio for the first–and only–debate of the race.On the screens in front of the fifty or so journalists, Governor Jerry Brown faced off against Republican rival Neel Kashkari via the California Channel and the other sponsors. Each candidate had 60 seconds for an opening and closing statement. Each faced questions from the panel of three moderators, with 90 seconds for answers and 30 seconds for rebuttals.
Neither would face questions from the other–or from the media or the public.
On the street, protestors milled about, shouting to make themselves heard. A large anti-fracking group turned up, as did a few demonstrators for free universal health care. They attracted the attention of a couple of cameras and bored correspondents, their voices echoing faintly through the hall.
Finally, Brown opened by touting his record in office; Kashkari opened by thanking viewers for not turning to the Packers-Seahawks football game.
Moderator John Meyers of KQED did his best to encourage channel-surfing. The first question he asked was put to Kashkari, and had nothing to do with substance: “How can you win?” he asked the Republican.
Kashkari used his response to outline his positions, especially his opposition to the pricey high-speed rail project. Brown rebutted by picking up where Myers left off, telling Kashkari: “You don’t really have much expectation to win.”
The moderation and the questions improved from there, with all three panelists tangling with the candidates, even interrupting their responses. The journalists in the lobby sat in rapt attention, focused intently on their computer screens.
It was clear who most in the room were supporting. They laughed along with Brown’s lame insults against Kashkari’s career on Wall Street; a few even tittered dismissively at Kashkari’s responses.
Still, it was clear that Kashkari had done well–too well for most to deny honestly, and well enough, to earn at least some grudging respect. The state’s political media may even wonder why they allowed Brown to duck a more ambitious debate schedule, such as the one he himself had demanded when he ran against Meg Whitman in 2010.
Sadly, we allowed the debate–and the state’s politics–to be squeezed into a small studio. California deserves better.