Warning, golf analogy ahead. And extremely long post.
You're playing a short par-5, and you've crushed a drive 285. You're about 200 yards away, and thinking maybe eagle. But there are woods on the right, and you push that three-wood right alot. So you have a choice: Sting a solid three-wood and start thinking red numbers, or hit nine-iron and wedge, and take your par.
Last night, the candidates for mayor kept the three-wood in the bag, and all laid up. Well, maybe not Ron Dionne, but more on that later. The three "major" candidates all took the safe route last night. Not one really showing a deep and fervent need or burning desire to be mayor. There was no grand talk about the future of the city. Hey, I would have taken "city on a hill" last night, and got none of it.
Instead, the candidates stuck to their basic messages -- none more so than Lisa Wong -- and gave relatively bland performances. I was in the room during the debate itself and thought it was OK. I watched about a half-hour on TV last night as Mrs. Save Fitchburg was catching up on TiVo, and thought the preformances were flatter on TV than in person. Certain no missteps -- which is obviously good -- but where was the person who made it perfectly clear that they wanted this job more than anything else in life right now? Was it nerves? Was it an overwhelming desire to not screw up? A little passion would have been nice last night.
Surprisingly, there was little passion from Ted DeSalvatore. He's spent the last 18 months firing up his troops with his unique blend of energy and rather plain speaking. He was muted and controlled last night. Some of that fire leaked out a few times, but not enough. He wasn't the "real" DeSalvatore. I got more energy out of him in the parking lot in 15 minutes afterward than he gave off in the 90-minute debate.
If this was your first exposure to DeSalvatore, you're thinking, "Hey, everyone said he's nuts. He's not nuts tonight." And, obviously, that's good for DeSalvatore. But it's not him. Certainly, every candidate is coached and planned before a debate, but it really showed last night with DeSalvatore. Where was the Ted who almost always at some point in a phone interview says something like, "I know I shouldn't say this, but..." Non-existent. In the long run, of course, this is good for DeSalvatore. A lot of people aren't sure if they can trust him to run the city. Every performance like this chips away at those concerns.
In some ways, this preliminary might come down to how primary voters view DeSalvatore. In theory, preliminary voters aren't casual voters. The 15-20 percent who are going to show up on Sept. 25 are pretty committed to voting. In theory, they have been following the race and candidates for some time. You can pick a handful of other blogs -- and look around here -- for the Ted of the last 18 months. It's a different -- for better or worse -- than the guy on stage last night. Which Ted is the real Ted? Which one do voters want?
Finally, on this issue at least, he probably shouldn't have ended with the "I promise I'll behave" line. It's just a reminder to people that there are some concerns about trusting him in office. Not a good way to leave things. Yup, supposed to be funny, and it was, but it just reinforces that doubt is out there.
The most heat during the debate was between Thomas Donnelly and Lisa Wong. Donnelly knocked Wong's acheivements at every turn. She scored nice points with the "plans are plans, but it takes action" line (not a direct quote, by the way) on Riverfront Park. Wong defended herself well, but no doubt Donnelly was driving that aggression train.
Why? Here's my theory, and it's theory: Donnelly would rather face DeSalvatore in the general than Wong. Team Donnelly has to feel like it's finishing the Top Two on Sept. 25. They probably feel like their finishing first, but does anyone really think that organization won't at least place? Seems highly unlikely. So, considering future matchups, Team Donnelly would prefer DeSalvatore in the general.
Donnelly didn't waste too many opportunities to go after Wong -- there weren't a ton, but he didn't miss the ones that were there -- but said nary a discouraging word toward DeSalvatore. You'd have to think if he were worried about the preliminary, he'd be an equal-opportunity aggressor. But he wasn't. So, I'm thinking he doesn't want to tangle with Wong in the general.
Otherwise, Donnelly's performance was probably the flattest of the three. DeSalvatore leaked some fire here and there, and Wong was the well-spoken voice of business management. Donnelly never really got fully comfortable, it seemed. More importantly, I can't get over his refusal to take some responsibility for the city's financial situation.
He attached to moderator Ralph Romano's contention that rejecting the budget would lead to chaos, and massive layoffs. I need an explanation on that one. Why would things grind to a halt under a 1/12th budget? The state used to it all the time. If you're spending and bringing money in at the same levels as the year before, what, exactly, is the problem that leads to massive chaos? Are there annual payments due July 1 or something? Donnelly didn't bring this up earlier, only after Romano did, so I feel he was using it as a lifeline. It went unchallenged by Wong and the others, but now I want to know. What would happen, and why? If someone can answer (Romano, this means you), share with the class.
Regardless, Donnelly's walking away from the financial problems as something the council could have helped. So what the hell has he and the other 10 people been doing the last eight years. He wants it both ways. He wants to point to his experience on the City Council, but wants to throw the council's biggest responsibility to the curb. He said at one point he has more "new plans" than the rest of the candidates. Outside of his financial team plan -- which is nice but not revolutionary -- what are those plans? Didn't really hear them last night, I'd say.
Donnelly said last night it's hard for all 11 councilors to get in line and battle on the budget. He's right. Although you really only need six to stick together and make things happen. That said, the council has squandered opportunity after opportunity to be financial sticklers, and that is his responsibility. I can't get over this issue with Donnelly -- and other councilors. It' s been bugging me for a week.
Between the toned-down DeSalvatore (whose eyes didn't stop moving back and forth when he talked) and the uncomfortable Donnelly, Wong did pretty well. She seemed the most well-spoken and on-the-issues. She lit on some specifics -- like the building of this year's school budget -- that probably only she knew. That said, she was dangerously close to being a one-line candidate last night. Anyone want to hear "goals oriented" one more time? It's her philosophy, and it goes to a lot of things -- her background, education, overall plans for the city -- but she seemed to message-programmed.
She stood her ground with Donnelly, which was good. She seems focused on finances, which obviously is key. But the question about her campaign from the beginning was whether she'd be overly wonkish and academic. She stayed away from the overly academic and detail-laden answers she can sometimes give when she has unlimited time to talk, but her overall plan seems like a applying a business-school model on a city. That's great, but some of that neighborhood talk that you got from Donnelly would have helped.
From talking to people over the last few months, it's pretty clear that the city's budget situation is their number one priority. If that's true, then it was a good night for Wong. Donnelly brushed off his responsibility for it, DeSalvatore doesn't think it's the city's biggest problem, and she presented herself -- if nothing else -- as a smart, educated business person with a plan. Does it excite? No. And that might be a problem later.
As for Dionne, he's a nice guy, but he was out of his depth last night. Without looking at my prodigious Fitchburg Pride rambling, he outright said he didn't know details on the city's budget, the charter, and what teachers are dealing with. He showed a lack of understanding on the police chief contract. He was woefully underprepared. Some of these same things are bound to come up next Thursday when the four meet again. Maybe he'll be better up to speed then. Somehow, I have my doubts.
It will be interesting what adjustments all three top candidates make next Thursday at Fitchburg State. Hopefully, next week, someone decides it's time to take a stand and pull out their three-wood.
Labels: DeSalvatore, Dionne, Donnelly, election, Wong