Over the weekend the candidates for Ohio’s new 16th Congressional District seat competed in an unusual, lengthy and sometimes intense citizens’ forum. Two dozen people from six counties selected by a non-partisan group grilled Republican Jim Renacci and Democrat Betty Sutton and then after jury-like deliberations gave their verdict. As ideastream’s Bill Rice reports, it was an attempt to get beyond TV ads and speech spin.
The project is called Reclaim November Ohio, and it's designed to give voters an alternative to the normal fare of campaign events and advertising that typically bombard voters - especially this year. Jim Meffort is executive Director of Jefferson Action, a Saint Paul, Minnesota based non-profit group whose stock and trade for 20 years has been assembling what he calls "citizens juries" to tackle tough issues.
"We're capturing and allowing people who are frustrated with what they see on TV with attack ads, what they see from outside spending, which is just attacking somebody, distracting from real important discussions that need to take place. We're providing an alternative to that."
The panel of 24 was carefully chosen to demographically represent a cross section of the 16th congressional district. Before hearing from the candidates on Saturday the panel, with the help of more than half a dozen university university professors , boned up on such topics as economic growth, the debt and deficit and unemployment.
Renacci met first with the group, and focused largely on a theme of cutting taxes and regulations to stimulate job growth. Asked by a panel member about how to get back jobs that were offshored, Renacci said the problem starts at home – he cited figures from the National Manufacturers' Association to make his point that the United States isn't competitive as a place to manufacture products.
Renacci: Excluding payroll, it's 20 percent more expensive to do business in the United States of America - EXCLUDING PAYROLL.
Renacci said 10 percent of the difference is in tax rates, the other ten percent is regulations.
Renacci: Let's look at that 20 percent, let's get our tax rates back to where they're competitive with a global market, let’s get our regulations to a point where we still have them, they're just not excessive - and we now save 20 percent. I guarantee if you talk to companies that have sent jobs overseas, they'll tell you if we could save that 20 percent, we'd be right back here.
Betty Sutton took a markedly different approach to growth and jobs. She told the group she wants smart cuts, AND smart investments - that is, government support - in targeted business growth strategies. She cited the bailouts of GM and Chrysler as one such investment, and her own signature program - the cash for clunkers bill that gave a tax credit for trading in an old car for a more environmentally friendly new car.
Sutton: That's a perfect example. I was looking at multiple goals. How can we, if we're spending money, do so so that we can get the most that we can out of it? If we're cutting, is it a smart cut or does it cost us more in the long run?
Sutton shuns cuts in government spending that result in job losses, which she says said increases payouts in unemployment, food stamps and other services for people whose resources become exhausted. As for taxes, Sutton says said the wealthy should pay a little more, and that tax BREAKS that provide an incentive for offshoring jobs should be ended.
The different policy positions Sutton and Renacci offered to this group differ little from what they tell audiences - mostly handpicked - at events they've organized. Each spent 75 minutes with the Jefferson panel. Then, the panelists spent another day and a half rating and scoring candidate responses. In the final tally - released late Sunday - Renacci fared better than Sutton . We spoke after that by phone with panelist Richard Baker, a construction worker from Suffield, in Portage County.
Baker: Overall I think that Renacci did receive higher scores, and a lot of that was we felt that we could relate to what he was saying better. Renacci did a better job of making his case to us.
Bruce Herron of Wadsworth, a technology project manager, agreed that Renacci had the edge among the group, although he said it was no landslide. He said Sutton was shorter on specifics in her answers, which hurt her. But he also said the choice of subject areas were more in line with Renacci's campaign message.
Herron: Congresswoman Sutton has other issues that are high priority for her, and had we discussed taking care of seniors or veterans, or women's issues, health care costs, I think the result could have been pulled a lot stronger in her direction.
Jefferson Action, the non-partisan sponsoring group, claims the Reclaim November Ohio program is an advancement in dialog over the big money negative ad campaigns and tit for tat talkfests on the cable news channels. But how much impact a conversation with 24 people in a small town will have with voters across the 16th district – is an open question. Director Jim Meffert says the effort is a work in progress.