Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Dems at Texas Debates offer slightly different policies, very different personalities
Bill White and Farouk Shami debated Monday night with hopes to prove to voters they're best suited to challenge the Republican machine.
FORT WORTH The top two Democratic candidates for governor squared off Monday night in their first and only face-to-face debate.
Roughly 40 audience members watched as former Houston mayor Bill White and hair-care product mogul Farouk Shami provided a stark contrast to the style and tone of the Republican showdown in January. Where was the condescending laughter after every response from the opponent? What about the blanket characterizations and occasional political low-blows? Pretty much non-existent. These two preferred to talk about "issues" and "policy changes." Whatever.
In all seriousness though, this was mostly a result of the fact that these two candidate's positions on many issues are very similar. The differences, in most cases, are far more nuanced.
This is not to say the night was without some entertaining moments. Shami, a Palestinian-American who has never run for elected office, is a walking soundbite. He speaks with a thick accent and at times rambles in an almost nonsensical fashion, starting new sentences and thoughts without completing previous ones. Much of the time, it seemed he either did not understand or did not want to answer the question that was posed to him by the panel.
However, even with this occasional confusing presentation, it was possible to glean a few surprising promises from Shami's agenda. Probably the most shocking was his claim that if elected governor, he would create 100,000 jobs within his first two years. Standard-fare campaign promise. And if he doesn't create the jobs? He says he'll donate $10 million of his personal fortune to the state's coffers.
Can't say I've ever heard a politician promise this sort of thing before. He also says he'll be taking a $1 a year salary if elected.
When asked about how he would handle relations with Mexico and address the border issue, Shami responded that we need to build bridges, not walls, in order to foster a more friendly relationship with Mexico. Then this: "Without Mexicans, it'd be like a day without sunshine for our state."
White at times seemed amused with Shami's soliloquies. It quickly became clear that he doesn't consider Shami his real opponent, as he only addressed him directly a couple of times the entire debate. He focused much more of his attention on current Gov. Rick Perry, contrasting his own positions with Perry's (rather than Shami's) any chance he could.
Even when Shami lobbed occasional direct attacks at White, he didn't stop to address the attacks or counter punch his opponent.
The two were basically in lock-step over issues such as opposing school vouchers, the need to invest more in education to stimulate job growth, supporting abortion rights, and adamantly opposing voter identification legislation.
The schism came, primarily, on issues related to the death penalty and Barnett Shale natural gas drilling.
When asked if he would support a moratorium on the death penalty in light of recent exonerations due to DNA-evidence, Shami said he would. He also said he would only support the death penalty if he were "110% positive the person committed the crime."
This moment perhaps offered the real contrast between these two candidates. A career attorney and politician, Bill White tends not to speak in these idealistic, and some would say unrealistic, terms.
White said he wouldn't support a moratorium out of respect to the jury and the victims in those cases where the evidence leaves no question about the case. This may seem to be a more conservative position, but really it is indicative of the pragmatism that White developed while dealing with a racially and economically diverse major American city like Houston on a day-to-day basis.
This same dynamic was seen when the candidates fielded a question regarding a moratorium on drilling in heavily populated areas within the Barnett Shale, in light of recent evidence that some of the drilling may be releasing the harmful chemical Benzene into water supplies. Again, Shami said he would absolutely support a moratorium and passionately struck moralistic tones about how a human life is more precious than drilling for gas or oil. White, remaining subdued, said he would only support shutting down and punishing the companies that have been found to be in violation of the law.
At times, it was unclear if Shami understood exactly what his role would be as governor and how exactly he would affect policy change. Shelly Koeffler of KERA sensed this, and tried to pin him down on what tools exactly he believed he would have at his disposal to deal with say, the expected budget shortfall. "You don't actually introduce the budget yourself, you know that right?" she said.
In his rambling response, Shami did mention the power of veto he would wield, but the rest of his answer was far from concrete. One gets the sense that as someone who has for decades run his own business and dealt only in the private sector, Shami might not understand the complex bureaucratic nature of state politics and the myriad restrictions governors have which limit their power.
For his part, White displayed a strong command of the issues and exuded an air of confidence. However, some voters may see him as too calm. The fact is, either of these candidates will be facing an uphill battle against their Republican counterpart. It is unclear whether White's approach would be effective against a much better funded and much more aggressive Perry or Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, or even the libertarian, populist appeal of darkhorse Debra Medina.