STRAYER: Minding your manners at political debates

Published 8:31 am Wednesday, September 5, 2018

“Speaking from Experience” is the official tagline of my monthly column because I frequently draw from my career as a campaign manager, legislative staffer, registered federal lobbyist, and think tank executive when I need inspiration for a column theme.

Political campaigning has changed quite a bit since my last run as campaign manager. That last run was in 2008 when I managed the campaign for Sharon Tyler, the Republican candidate for 78th District State Representative.

Sharon Tyler knew she had an uphill battle against her Democratic opponent Judy Truesdell as she entered the public meeting room at the RESA offices in Berrien Springs five days before the election. We were all quite apprehensive because the Tyler campaign had been warned by Republican officials that the Democrats in the crowd would be raucous and rude to candidate Tyler.

Even before Sharon agreed to debate Judy, we had met with the officers of the Berrien and Cass County League of Women Voters, the sponsor of the debate, and urged them to use some leadership, discretion and direction in an attempt to curtail booing and shouting down the candidate.

Near the end of the Tyler-Truesdell debate, Sharon was asked by the moderator who she thought would be a better president to keep the nation safe, Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain? Sharon explained that her son was being deployed to the Middle East in the next several weeks and she would prefer John McCain as a better peace-keeper and war-time leader.

The room exploded in a thunderous round of booing, but the League of Women Voters’ moderators did nothing to quell the Democrats who led the charge against Sharon Tyler.

“I am the mother of a soldier heading off to war!” Sharon Tyler shouted over the booing. But the booing got louder and louder and the pleas for decorum from Sharon Tyler and even candidate Truesdell were lost in the continuing pandemonium.

A reporter from the South Bend Tribune was sitting in front of me and he turned around and said, “Congratulations, Jack! I think your candidate just won the election!”

The South Bend Tribune, the Niles Daily Star, and the Herald Palladium all ran stories the next day about the mother of a soldier being booed off the stage. A few days later, Sharon Tyler was elected 78th District State Representative in a very close race.

Sharon Tyler and Judy Truesdell ran remarkably clean and insightful campaigns. Both campaigns were cited for their high-minded approach to campaigning. Both sides later agreed that the League of Women Voters debate, and the conduct of the anti-Tyler crowd, had helped Sharon Tyler win election.

The Berrien and Cass County League of Women Voters is now under new leadership and we can only hope they remember the mistakes they made back in 2008.

So I speak from experience when I urge all voters and attendees to upcoming public debates and candidate forums to refrain from the rude and raucous behavior that cost Judy Truesdell the election. Let’s all try to keep it civil and polite in this highly charged political atmosphere.