SARATOGA SPRINGS–Trying to find someone who attended yesterday’s debate between Jim Tedisco and Scott Murphy but is not affiliated with either campaign not easy. Figuring out who won is even more difficult.
I finally came across someone who claimed neutrality (though he admitted he is an enrolled member of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Murphy in the election for Kirsten Gillibrand's recently vacated House seat), and asked him for his take.
"I didn't see it as much of a debate, so much as a public questionnaire," Phil Markham, a 55-year-old retiree who drove to this Victorian oasis from rural Rensselaer County, told me. "The problem is that anyone who does their homework can get the answers right."
Reporters sitting in the back of the room gossiped about the lack of contrast between the candidates. Debate sponsors at the AARP handed out a voters guide to attendees, which showed no differences between Tedisco and Murphy's answers to the five questions asked.
Both candidates oppose changing Social Security, and hope to strengthen the program. Tedisco repeatedly invoked his 94-year-old mother Beatrice, who he said is supported entirely by the program. Both hope to improve access to health care, and say money can be saved by moving toward long term care in homes, bulk purchase of prescription drugs and digitization of medical records. (Murphy said he supports Barack Obama's plan to offer the federal health insurance system to everyone.)
Neither candidate thought that health insurance should be mandated, as is the case in Massachusetts. Nor did they think that Social Security should be restructured to include individually controlled retirement accounts.
There was a clash on the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as "card check," which would allow unions to be formed by petition, not a public ballot. Murphy said he will vote for the law, and believes it will help "strengthen the middle class." Tedisco said that while he supports labor unions and marched on picket lines as a child, he believes that secret elections are the hallmark of American democracy.
"I'm just excited that we don't have card check between me and Scott, that you're going to be able to go into a voting booth," Tedisco said. He said he would "never" support such a mechanism.
Murphy's responses to the questions – some of which were generated by the audience, some by the AARP, and some by moderator Susan Arbetter – were largely cogent (he answered one question in one word, then joked about doing so), while Tedisco's sometimes meandered. But Tedisco did a better job in establishing Wall Street fat cats as the root of our current problems, and tying Murphy to that class of person.
Finally, he hit a home run when it came to establishing his own campaign narrative. I swear I heard a few people sniffle when Tedisco told the story of how his father insisted he make a weekend trip to the foundry that employed him one weekend when Jim was a freshman at Bishop Gibbons High School in Schenectady with mediocre grades.
"I blew my nose and chunks of dirt and soot came out," Tedisco recalled. His father made it clear that this was the path that laid ahead for him if he didn't study, and he did.
"I'm one of you," Tedisco declared in his closing statement.
Murphy has used his wife's large family – the Hogans – to establish his bona fides in the district, and repeated those lines during his opening statement. But he doesn't have as much to invoke as Tedisco.
Several Tedisco supporters in the audience made this point. Murphy's people argue that he needed to sound intelligent and look good – to make a positive impression on the many voters in the district who still don't know much about him.
But Tedisco is a known quantity that has been elected over a dozen times. Since there was no major clash of issues, reminding voters of that fact seemed to be all that was necessary to win the debate.
Markham, however, thought the opposite. He said he left planning to vote for Murphy.