Last night I was on a panel of 3 with Peggy Dolgenos and Cliff Hodges interviewing our local candidates for Santa Cruz City Council. I represented the Santa Cruz Geeks, one of the event sponsors along with SC NEXT, Cruzio Internet, and Civinomics. The legendary Kuumbwa Jazz center hosted the event (I was on the same stage once held by Booby Hutchinson, McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Zawinul, and many other greats). Our local darlings, the Penny Ice Creamery, brought free waffle cones. Billed as “Inside Scoop“, we crowdsourced questions from the community, then reviewed, consolidated, & massaged them into ~100 min of public examination. The event was fun, and warm, organic, and surprisingly challenging to the candidates and the panel.
Questions were heavily weighted towards job creation, local technology development, our relationship with UCSC (a state entity that broadly impacts our city), issues with crime and homelessness, how to build more sustainability & resilience, and how we can keep so many talented people from leaving Santa Cruz every day to work in Silicon Valley.
Each candidate had only a minute to respond to a question. Questions changed from candidate to candidate and we on the panel were modifying questions in real-time in response to previous answers. This kept things moving quickly and a bit spontaneously. The candidates were really on the spot to come up with decent answers in such a short amount of time, and it was telling in it’s own way how they responded, sometimes getting a little upset at the pace and framing of complex topics into simplified queries. Welcome to the electorate!
People often don’t understand the details & nuances of an issue but they demand a consumable answer nevertheless. Candidates had to think on their toes. Some candidates had troubles because they brought pre-scripted platform statements that were thrown out the window (although these folks still tried to get their soundbites in and occasionally even dismissed questions in order to play their one-liners). It was also interesting and informative to see the difference between passionate candidates who embrace change and those who have become jaded about the process and limitations inherent in political structures. This was especially the case for some of the older candidates who had previously served multiple terms on Council.
It struck me how valuable it is to inject governance with fresh, green blood. Seasoned members internalize the institutional boundaries and blocks within civic governance, taking a bit of a cynical attitude towards ever being able to affect meaningful change. They get too close to the system and then accept it’s tendency to calcify. In contrast, new elected members are often much more excited, passionate, ambitious, and don’t understand the supposed limitations of their role. So they push against the old ways and often surprise everyone by moving the process forward simply on their naiveté and drive.
The event revealed a lot more about the candidates than I ever would have gleaned from mere news clippings and campaign websites. Some people I expected to flail ended up surprising me both in their intelligence and character. Others who I wanted to like and agreed with some of their principles really turned me off with their attitude and personality.
And this is where I think the event really excelled. The questions weren’t always cutting or pointed but the format* proved to be a unique challenge to the candidates in a way that revealed their personalities, their ability to think quick and innovate on their toes, and their drive to understand and engage the realities of the community.
I think the event was really entertaining and could be tuned and evolved in a way that would drive more civic engagement and interaction with our elected leadership. I hope we can do it again!
* Somewhere in here there’s a model process for community engagement around local politics. A sort of improvisational Ignite for local governance…