On Tuesday night, like many Americans, I intently watched a hotly contested political debate. However, unlike most of the folks, the debate I sat in the audience of didn’t feature presidential hopefuls, but rather the three candidates for Sheriff of Harrisonburg & Rockingham County. As opposed to the Tea Party forum that was held previously, this event last night was a full-fledged, no holds barred debate. And let me tell you that the attacks came fast and furious as the night went on.
I’ll start by mentioning the particulars of the debate that I thought went well.
First, the fact that all three candidates showed up was important. This point might seem like a minor issue, but a debate is a time-honored tradition in American politics that should not be ignored (cough hint to George Allen cough). I congratulate C. M. Hess, Bryan Hutcheson, and Kevin Shifflett for having the courage to stand before the voters (or employers as Mr. Shifflett prefers to call them) and articulate their reasoning for seeking the office of sheriff.
Second, I thought the debate was well run. Although the periodic announcement of time remaining was a distraction, the time keeping was handled fairly, giving each candidate equal time. I appreciated that hosts allowed for considerable audience participation (although I’ll delve into a specific negative on this issue shortly.)
Third, in general the audience and candidates were respectful of each other. There were no wild outbursts or interruptions and although there were differences in levels of applause, clapping greeted each answer.
However, the greatest negative, in my mind, had to revolve around the audience questions.
First, was there any oversight or prescreening on these questions? Some folks tended to ramble, veer off topic, or jam several questions into one.
Second, it seemed to me that some members of the audience sought to politically assassinate candidates. Now I understand that most of the people asking questions did so in order to promote the candidate of their choice or to point out the weaknesses of the other candidates, but some of the attacks seemed to me to be over the top, especially the ones directed against Mr. Hess.
As a result of recent news, most citizens are aware of the drinking and driving incident that took place last year involving our current sheriff, Don Farley. Do I believe that the public needs to be better informed about this issue? Yes. If there is proof of misconduct should Sheriff Farley be held accountable? Of course. Does the entire Sheriff’s office bear some responsibility for this affair? Sure. Well, should we bludgeon Mr. Hess repeatedly over the head with this issue and treat him as if he were drinking and driving himself? I don’t think so.
I’d compare the event to a three-way boxing match. Imagine if you will, during the fight several spectators jumping into the ring to pummel one or more of the athletes. Would you consider such a move fair? Now, if one of the candidates wished to spend his time tearing into another candidate that is one thing. I just found the repeated attacks from the audience against all the candidates, but especially against Mr. Hess given their ferocity, quite distasteful.
I think there is something to like in all three of the choices, but each of the candidates seems to have a particular strength. C.M. Hess gets a leg up with on the issue of experience given his lengthy service with the department. Although none have run for office prior, Bryan Hutcheson seems to be the most articulate, which can create confidence and clarity among the force and the citizenry. Given his role in the discipline of the armed forces, one can argue that Kevin Shifflett stands a better chance to reform some of the negative aspects of the office.
If you are wondering who I thought won this debate, given all aspects, I believe that Mr. Hutcheson emerged the winner (or the least unscathed depending on your perspective). One of his strongest moments emerged when both Mr. Hess and Mr. Shifflett independently stated that he would be supporting Mr. Hutcheson assuming he were not a candidate himself.
Will this trend continue in future debates? We’ll have to wait and see.
Until then, I encourage you to visit the websites of Hess, Hutcheson, and Shifflett as well as their Facebook pages. The citizens of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County deserve a great sheriff. Let’s make sure we pick the best one.