Published in the Brookline
August 31, 2000
The TAB-sponsored debate two weeks ago between incumbent State Representative
Ronny Sydney and challenger Frank Smizik should have been good theater.
There were some differences over issues, contrasting styles, knowledgeable
interrogators, direct candidate-to-candidate interaction, questions
from the audience, and opposing camps of supporters ready to applaud
on cue. The only thing missing was drama.
Thinking Town Hall would be packed with partisans, I arrived early.
Yet even at its peak there were plenty of empty seats. Televising the
event made showing up unnecessary, but both campaigns missed a beat
in not filling the room with more cheering bodies
Another problem was the over-packed format. The TAB had arranged for
questions from three experts, then each candidate questioned the other,
then the audience got a turn, then the candidates gave closing statements.
All these elements made sense, but they all didn't fit into the 50
minutes remaining once the debate started 10 minutes late. There was
no time for meaningful follow-up, no pushing candidates to respond more
completely, no second round of questioning by the panelists. Combined
with modern debating's equal-time and stilted-politeness conventions,
the result was more lackluster than illuminating.
On the other hand, any debate between two liberal Brookline Democrats
would probably be drama-deficient. This is no thundering battle of liberal
and conservative opposites. If the winner had to run against a Republican
in November, most Sydney and Smizik supporters would no doubt acknowledge--after
the September primary--that differences between the two are relatively
But some differences do exist. Unburdened by a legislative record of
his own to defend, Smizik criticized several Sydney votes--against linking
the minimum wage to the cost of living, in favor last year of cutting
the state income tax, in favor of budget bills that failed to fully
fund schools. Sydney's justifications seemed unlikely to persuade hard-core
progressives for whom Smizik best represents Brookline's preferred self-image.
Yet Republicans and independents voting in the Democratic primary could
help Sydney, whose more moderate approach typifies Brookline's tamer
The main issue at the debate was how to deal with House Speaker Tom
Finneran. Smizik used the very first question, about health care, to
note that Finneran stands in the way of health system improvements;
he repeated the point in responding to the second question, about education
funding. Smizik's argument, and indeed his main campaign theme, is that
progress is not possible because House members such as Sydney voted
to give Finneran autocratic power.
Sydney, who speaks more smoothly than Smizik, defended her record with
a flourish, reminding Smizik (to cheers from her supporters) that "Finneran
isn't your opponent." Yet Finneran has been Smizik's opponent from the
start. If the Speaker really is the state's key barrier to progressive
initiatives, then Sydney's refusal to join anti-Finneran forces is a
legitimate target. It doesn't do much good to have liberal positions
on bills that the Speaker never lets come to a vote.
So when Smizik charged Sydney with voting 14 times against changing
the House Rules under which Finneran exercises power, I eagerly awaited
her response. But the incumbent just repeated that she's helped get
Brookline money for many projects and that she's good at working with
people. She never explained her votes on the rules.
Smizik was a little vague too, though. When asked several times how
he'd be able to work with the powerful Finneran he's no doubt already
antagonized, Smizik insisted that being independent and outspoken is
simply a different strategy, one that doesn't necessarily hurt the district.
However, if Finneran's really the despot most of us think he is and
his opponents remain few in number, it's not clear how Smizik's presence
will make any difference. I would have liked to hear more.
Both Sydney and Smizik speak more passionately when they forget to
be careful. Perhaps with other formats the candidates would be freer
to elaborate their positions--and forced to defend them--with something
more than scripted applause lines. A good debate that rattles them both
might even give more listeners a reason to vote.
Newcomer Columns List