Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

I Can Live with That

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I’ve been doing candidate interviews as a public service since 2014. I expect that since then, I’ve probably talked with nearly 300 candidates. And with each interview, I am again reminded and amazed by how candidates respond to questions. Some are grateful to be asked things they haven’t been asked before. Others are clearly annoyed by questions they consider pedantic or pedestrian. Others go as far as making it clear to you that they consider some questions much more intelligent than others. Such is the nature of political candidates and political candidate interviews.

But something no candidate likes, and all candidates stumble over, are questions they should know something about but don’t. And this goes back to one of the historic conundrums candidates face when running for office; do they focus on larger issues or do they focus on local issues? Because a candidate that goes to the legislature with the intention, Jimmy Stewart style, of being a man for all of the people, looks at every vote in the big picture. But, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the lesson of former US Representative David Mann is instructive. Mann, a democrat, was elected to the US House in the early-90s by the people of his Cincinnati district. Once there however, his constituents accused him of voting for issues that weren’t their issues, namely NAFTA. In other words, as far as they were concerned, he forget who he was working for. And when House elections rolled around again, he was essentially yanked and replaced by a republican. It’s an economic calculation. As a politician, you have to weigh how much big picture stuff will your constituents stomach vs how much local stuff will your legislative colleagues stomach. Tip too far in one direction and you risk losing your moorings from the other direction. And that has a tendency to determine where you expertise will lie.

But, of course, I don’t care about any of that. I ask questions on subjects a candidate running for that office may encounter, esp. if the incumbent already has. And since the very nature of politics is dealing with the unexpected, they may eventually encounter … everything. Legislator A in House District 17 may have to vote on an issue affecting the rest of the state. But her constituents hate the legislation. Where should legislator A’s loyalties lie; in serving the greater good or in making sure her little square of bread is safely buttered? So if I ask candidate A about a possible Senate vote on regulations for business, even as they’re from a rural district feeling industrialized parts of the state have problems they don’t, and excessive regulations are killing their way of life, and candidate A decided to fills the answer with silence, punctuated with a lot of “ummmmms” because they haven’t really thought about the big picture, it’s going to be interesting.

From my POV, this is either someone who needs to do more prep before they venture another interview, or someone who is totally reliant on the “from the people” narrative to the extreme, meaning, they know as much about the complex issue in question as the “average” person. Since “I am them and they are me,” the unspoken logic goes, “my voters don’t want some political insider anyway.” Some candidates have even implied that the founders came from farmers who did just fine. And nearly three centuries ago, that worked. But in 2022 America, as it relates to a host of complex issues, study after study shows that average knowledge is not that impressive and in a legislative setting, can even be a little dangerous since no votes can afford to be cast in a vacuum.

So, I sometimes end up annoying candidates. I’m not trying to. But when it comes to drawing out answers from someone who wants to do things in your name, have reign over your money and control the lives of you and your loved ones for generations to come, it’s an occasional reaction I can totally live with.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2022 at 10:08

Posted in Scratchpad

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