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Moving lips don't guarantee candidate is saying something
Don't they understand? You can't save a drowning child by teaching him not to go in the water

14 July 1988

The city editor walked out of his windowed office still reading and shaking his head. He looked up from the scribbled sheet and spoke to the room in general.

"Democracy," he said, "is in grave danger."

He was reading the questionaires returned by legislative candidates. He was not encouraged.

Each election season, Daily News political reporters sit down with their editors to fashion a list of questions about issues of the day. These are sent to all candidates, and the answers used for a variety of purposes.

The editorial board of the paper will review all questions and answers in considering endorsements. Reporters will have access to them, and some of the responses will be used in writing candidate and contest profiles.

Most importantly, a selection of the replies will be selected for publication. Six or seven of the responses will be picked and displayed in a grid format. It's a Daily News election coverage tradition, and a convenient way to compare contenders side-by-side on some of the hottest issues of the year

We work hard to select the most meaningful of the questions, but sometimes they are obvious nonetheless. This season, for example, it seemed impossible to not to include extensive discussion about revenues and budgets and open meetings. There aren't any trick questions on the list.

And it is, of course, what students would call an open book test. The candidate gets to take quite a while answering, and is free to ask for advice, or study up on the issues, or even let some smart assistant answer for him. We can't stop them if they do.

What we can do (and have, despite some heated debate) is make them play by the rules. You would be amazed by the position some of these prospective lawmakers will take.

The most common is for them to ignore the questions we asked and try simply to answer whatever they wished we'd asked instead. One question in particular seemed to give many of them problems this year.

We asked the candidates to move beyond the omnipresent budget-cutting discussions and consider, instead, the matter of new revenues. They were asked, in essence, to assume that the budget couldn't be cut any further and that they had to rank a list of new revenue sources by preference.

Asked what they would do to raise revenues, many said they'd cut budgets. And that, we've told them, is not an answer. It's like asking them what method they'd use to save a drowning child and having them answer that they'd have taught him to stay out of the water.

Candidates who didn't answer responsively have been given a second chance. The political interns working in our office this summer have telephoned to tell them if their reply was unresponsive, and I will admit that it's fun to eavesdrop while these 19 and 20 year olds explain basic logic to prospective state legislators.

(Whatever the process does for the candidates, it is bound to help our interns. I only wish I had learned at such a young age that the fact that a politician's lips are moving doesn't mean he's really saying something.)

Some of the candidates caught on, and agreed (reluctantly) to answer the revenue question as asked. Others refused, and so you will see some of the grids in our special election section are mostly blank, with a line that says "The candidate did not answer this question." That doesn't mean they didn't write anything in the blank; it just means theat they wouldn't answer what we asked.

We have also chosen to present their answers just the way they wrote them -- or as close as possible, at least. We can't really run answers in Crayon in the paper.

But we can run verbatium samples of their replies, with the spelling, grammar and syntax left just they way they turned it in. Read the answers closely, and you can discover not only what the candidates think, but some clues about how they think, as well.

You may find, as our city editor did, that the way these candidates answer (and fail to answer) questions is just as revealing as the positions they actually espouse.

And may God bless Alaska.

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