Candidates question if debate format helps voters make the right choice

Oz Griebel was frustrated.  He saw the latest gubernatorial debate as another futile exercise, illuminating little about the abilities of the candidates to lead Connecticut.

“To me, it’s how does a person think?” Griebel said. “What are their experiences? How do they react in difficult situations? How do they react in emotional situations?”

None of those questions were explored in a debate Wednesday night on NBC30 – or in most previous encounters, said Griebel, who is trailing in a three-way race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

His two would-be Democratic opponents, Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont, watched the debate and agreed with his assessment, but drew opposite conclusions.

Frustrated Oz

The start of a frustrating night for Oz Griebel as he listens to the groundrules for Wednesday’s debate. (Mark Pazniokas)

Lamont is through with debates for the primary campaign.

Malloy says the answer is a wide-open format.

Griebel says he is with Malloy: The fewer the rules, the better — and more debates, not less. Malloy has proposed a series of 17 encounters, one in every community with a daily newspaper.

“Hey, man, go for it,” Griebel said. “I’ll be right there.”

Griebel will get to debate his Republican rivals, Tom Foley and Michael Fedele, at least twice more before the primary election on Aug. 10.  Not so with Malloy and Lamont.

WNPR radio and WFSB, Channel 3 are making a last effort to convince Lamont to debate Malloy the week before the primary.

But Lamont, who refused an invitation by WTNH, Channel 8 and The Day of New London for a televised debate on July 27 before 1,500 spectators, said he saw nothing Wednesday to change his mind.

“You end up with one-minute sound bites. I don’t think it’s particularly revealing,” Lamont said.

Griebel said a debate could be revealing if the questioners went beyond a list of standard, unrelated questions and gimmicks like viewer emails and video queries posed by voters.

On Wednesday night, NBC30 played a video of a package store owner opposed Sunday liquor sales as a burden and asking the candidates their position. In a Democratic debate, the station played a video about support for tourism.

Griebel said those issues undoubtedly are important to narrow groups, but do they help anyone pick a candidate for governor in the one of the toughest fiscal environments ever to face the state?

On Wednesday, he was criticized by Foley and Fedele for being open to tolls as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure. He said his opponents were not adequately challenged about how they would meet the state’s obligations in a time of flat revenues and a projected deficit.

“Yeah, tolls are on the table. Shoot me,” he said.

His Democratic opponents empathized.

“I think Oz has got it about right,” Lamont said.  “I saw the debate, not much of substance. Everybody seems to be fixated on Sunday liquor sales, and we’re going bankrupt.”

Malloy said the NBC30 debate was better than others, because the format allowed the candidates  to question each other, if only briefly. And he noted that candidates share some responsibility for formats, which the campaigns typically negotiate with the sponsoring television station.

David Doebler, the president and general manager of NBC30, said the segment in which the candidates questioned each other was praised in hundreds of viewer emails Thursday. He agreed it yielded the most interesting exchanges, and he would consider expanding it allow follow up questions.

“We would love to open it up,” he said.

Doebler said some of the candidates might have disliked the viewer questions, but the station felt it important to include the perspective of voters.

Griebel’s criticisms went beyond the debate Wednesday. He said what is missing from modern political debates is a sustained discussion, where a candidate must think on his feet and not get by with a pre-packaged talking point.

“There is something missing here where I don’t see the public gets a full explanation of things. You jump from school vouchers to liquor laws,” Griebel said. “I get frustrated.”

Griebel said he was amazed that no one from NBC30 asked Foley about recent disclosures about two arrests after motor-vehicle incidents in 1982 and 1983, including one in which he was charged with assault. Neither case was pursued.

“Why did I have to ask the question on the arrests?” he asked.

Malloy, a former Stamford mayor who served with Griebel on the state Transportation Strategy Board, said he agreed with Griebel that voters need to get a sense of the candidates’ leadership qualities. There is no better way than to see the candidates side by side, testing each other, he said.

“They know they are selecting the person who’s going to have to make very important decisions about their future and their children’s future,” Malloy said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that debates are very important.  I think that’s one of the reasons Ned doesn’t want to debate.”

Lamont said he finds that voters can get a better sense of him and his vision for the state at town hall meetings he is conducting in person and on teleconferences. Voters have the opportunity to press for answers until they are satisfied.

Malloy said Lamont’s town hall meetings are a great idea. One way to make them better: invite him.

“If anyone can get him in a room around a table or at a podium,” Malloy said, “I’ll show up.”

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