I had the opportunity tonight to attend another candidate forum between Congressman Glenn Nye, Scott Rigell, and Kenny Golden. As I've said before, it's important to meet and listen to the candidates in person to get a better feel for their character. Ideology and issues aside, character is what defines a candidate. Tonight's forum, hosted by the League of Women's Voters, gave all three plenty of opportunities to show their character.
I arrived fairly early to the debate and had a chance to meet some members of the Rigell campaign. They were busy posting signs and handing out information for their candidate to a degree that was ... let's just say unmatched by either of the other camps. It was evidence either of the enthusiasm gap or the fundraising gap (or both) between Rigell and his opponents. At the end of the night, though, as one person observed, it all comes down to the candidates and how well they themselves perform.
I've been to one other debate between the candidates, but last time I only had the chance to watch the candidates onstage. Tonight, I got to meet and shake each of their hands and even speak with them for a bit. My impressions of the three men generally bore out throughout the evening.
Kenny Golden, the independent challenger with a resume twice as long as the other candidates', seemed to have a patriarchal presence. For every question he was asked, he had an experience to relate. For almost every issue raised, he could reference a time when he had already worked to resolve such an issue. The imposed austerity of his campaign couldn't quite keep him from appearing as a father-figure every now and then during the evening, though his opponents are certainly not children.
Scott Rigell clearly won the title of Most Energetic tonight. Perhaps feeding off his supporters' enthusiasm (or maybe they feed off his?), he seemed like a college athlete about to square off against his archrival on the field (an image boosted by the fact that the debate took place in a university conference room). He was very personable, as well. When I showed him my business card with the tagline "It's not about politics; it's about issues", he told me of a conversation he'd had with a friend when deciding to run for Congress. The friend informed Rigell that he wasn't very political, but Rigell assured him that politics wasn't his reason for running, but rather concern for the direction the country is heading.
Congressman Nye arrived after his opponents and seemed a little weary. The dual burdens of campaigning and conducting House business (though Congress is adjourned for the time being) seem to be taking their toll. He spent tonight's debate much as he had the previous one, reestablishing his bipartisan credentials and fending the attacks of his two conservative opponents. As the campaigns have evolved in the last month and a half, so apparently has Nye's style, as tonight he was not above firing a shot or two.
The questions and answers were more substantive tonight, though the issues remained the same: the federal deficit, infrastructure, immigration, job creation, the potential closing of certain military installations in Virginia, and education. The themes in the candidates' answers remained the same, as well. Golden touted his experience at every turn (and it was a compelling argument nearly every time). Rigell offered business-oriented solutions through much of the debate and berated Nye for his record of voting with Democrats on most issues. Nye countered by pointing out the major issues on which he'd broken ranks with his party and emphasizing the bipartisan partnerships he's formed both inside and outside the halls of Congress. He said he stands ready to work with businesses, teachers, other members of Congress, and with Governor McDonnell to find solutions to our problems.
I won't get into specifics about the questions and answers. On quite a few issues, like closing and securing the U.S./Mexican border and the need for highspeed rail in Hampton Roads, the candidates actually agreed, though they disagree on how to do certain things. Again, as in the previous debate, it came down to character tonight. In their arguments for why they each deserve our votes, they each tried to stress their own independence and concern for the needs of the district. I liked Rigell's accounts of how, in the course of his campaign, he'd met people across Hampton Roads who would tell him of their struggles and what they need for their businesses and families. He made the analogy that campaigning was like a job interview and, as a business owner, this was his first time in a while being on "the other side of the desk". I've said before that, in this time of economic uncertainty, what Congress really needs is more men and women with experience in the business world; and while Kenny Golden's resume is extensive and Glenn Nye is the only one of the three to ever serve in Congress, Scott Rigell is clearly the man with the most business experience.
There are still just over three weeks before the election. I'm not sure who I believe would make the best representative for this district in the next Congress, but the more debates I attend, the closer I feel to getting an answer. I encourage everyone to do the same. We've already seen some extraordinary things this election cycle, with some very unlikely candidates making ground in places never before thought to be competitive. No matter where you live or who your candidates are, don't make up your mind just yet about the outcome; and whatever you do, don't sit out this election. As Congressman Nye told me when I mentioned to him that I'd not yet decided which candidate to support, "stay tuned".
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