Primer for a troubling election

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

by Dennis Edwards

What do you do when the candidates running for the state’s highest office turn you off? When the words “change” and “results” merge into a kind of nerve-wracking snowy noise — the kind we see on your television set when there’s no picture.

The more I talk to folks, the more I hear them saying how much they don’t like negative campaigning in the race for Virginia’s highest elected office. Both candidates for governor are talking about each other, not about their own vision, what they’ll do and why. Many people see only a choice between lesser evils.

At this stage, predictions about local elections are reduced to counting candidate signs in the yards of people we’ve never met and possibly never will. What is the sincere voter to do? How do we tell who’s the right choice?

Several years ago I turned down a job offer from a news director in Houston, Texas. After answering a plethora of the usual interview questions I asked what would be his expectation of me? With a clever smile, he said, “Just don’t miss the obvious.” It was a brilliant answer. In fact, I kind of regret not going to work for him.

Maybe his advice can help voters, as well. If we listen long enough to candidates, they will tell us who they are, what they believe and what they’re about. If we tune out and turn off, we hurt ourselves.

I fear the negative tone is turning too many of us off to this election. If we switch off, we don’t vote. If we don’t vote, someone else determines our destiny. Could that be the ultimate purpose of negative campaigning?

Politics can be a sinister affair. There are politicos who are paid to find creative ways to reduce turnout by turning voters off. So as they switch the broader public off, operatives are busy turning their base on. Guess who votes and who doesn’t. Guess which candidate wins.

On the local level, I think the most important questions a voter can ask are who’s serious and who’s not? Which candidates are actually campaigning among every group they’ll represent? If not, why not? It’s also fair to question the details of change.

Who’s behind the candidate? Who will help implement the vision? Shouldn’t voters pay as much attention to backers as they pay to the candidates themselves?

Does the person running have a connection to traditional or reasonable Democratic or Republican values and policies?

Are their staffs inclusive? Is there diversity in decision-making campaign positions? Campaigns often signal candidates’ organizational models.

Concrete results and accomplishments should get serious attention. However, voters need a specific sense of how a candidate plans to build on past success, how those plans affect our lives and families. Consequently challengers should be able to outline a clear vision for building on a predecessor’s success.

Annie Willis, my kindergarten teacher, said something on the first day that I never forgot. She said “Class, pay attention.” In this case, we should pay attention to which candidates demonstrate a clear understanding of the problems all of us care about in our communities, the specific solutions each community needs.

“Pay attention” and “Don’t miss the obvious.” The wonderful thing about both pieces of advice is how doing one makes it more likely we’ll accomplish the other.

DENNIS EDWARDS is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor. He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at