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The [Debate] Papers: Gloves Off in Gov Debate. Brains, Too.

The first gubernatorial debate between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and challenger Judy Baar Topinka - broadcast last Sunday on Dick Kay's City Desk - was a truly weird and disturbing affair whose freakishness was nowhere near adequately captured by the media covering it.

Perhaps intent on providing a "balanced" account rather than a true one - and enthralled by a real, unscripted debate in which the challenger actually, um, challenged the incumbent - the media reports focused on the fact itself that a debate actually broke out at a debate rather than examining the incredibly lame and reckless behavior of the participants.

Personally, I found myself wondering at times if Judy Baar Topinka was doing lines of coke during the commercial breaks or was simply overly mindful of advisors urging her to attack, attack, attack. The unhinged Topinka, who by the way is the state treasurer, and a Republican, reminded me of one of those cranky old folks who rise to speak during the public comments portion of city council or school board meetings and is so incensed about her complaint of the day that she can't spit out a coherent sentence. She made me wonder if our state's money was really safe with her.

On the other hand, I found myself wondering at times if the pouty Blagojevich was going to cry as he pleaded with mom that he really had been a good boy.

Is there still time for someone not named James Meeks to make a third-party run?

And yet, I find it incredibly easy to declare a winner amidst the hijinks.

If only by default due to Topinka's incredible lack of preparation combined with a complete lack of anything constructive to say, I have to give it to Hot Rod.

(You can see the debate for yourself here.)

It's still not clear whether Topinka really wants to be governor, and if her campaign so far is any indication, she has no plans for what she would do in the office for four years except moan about what a bad a job Blagojevich did.

I say that as someone who is not exactly a huge fan of the governor. I wrote during the primary campaign of 2002 that he was a phony, empty suit. I still believe that. In Paul Vallas - someone whose record as head of the Chicago schools was decidedly mixed in my view - we would have nonetheless had a governor who was an expert in education and budgets who also had experience as a chief executive running a calcified bureaucracy. I can hardly think of a better fit of candidate to job, but that's ancient history.

Now we face the prospect of four more years of the Boy Governor or four years of the Crazy Aunt in the Attic.

I was scoring the debate at home. This is how I sized up the action.

Topinka sets the tone for her approach early by casting aspersions without having facts. She struck me as a tabloidish candidate who I'm pretty sure will at some point question the governor's marriage and spout off about Dick Mell with no regard to what she actually knows versus what she infers through the press.

Topinka says the governor is "just loaded with money, which is probably a question in itself."

Which would be a fine line of attack if she were, say, proposing campaign finance reform. She's not. She would take the Blago campaign's bank account in a heartbeat. So her real complaint is that he's been able to raise a ton more money than she has been able to raise.

Blagojevich, on the other hand, deflects the conversation away from his finances to the finances of the state, talking about "the mess we inherited." It's been four years, Rod. Yes, you inherited a mess from George Ryan. Get over it. Time to move on.

SCORING: Half a point for Blagojevich - or, rather, deduct half a point from Topinka.

Blago 0. Topinka -1/2.

Topinka says Blagojevich's plans to increase the minimum wage will be "another broken promise. There is no minimum wage increase coming around."

Wow. That's pretty bold. I'm not so sure he won't be able to do it - he did it in his first term, raising it from $5.15 to $6.50 - but if he can't do it again, isn't that more likely to be the fault of the General Assembly?

Meanwhile, what is her position on a minimum wage increase? She's against it.

Unasked question: Ms. Topinka, where would you set the minimum wage if it was up to you?

SCORING: Blagojevich may be full of broken promises, but to use his proposal to increase the minimum wage to try to make that point isn't very good politics. Point for Blagojevich.

Blago 1. Topinka -1/2.

"We have enough gun laws on the books, so why bother?" says Topinka. "Guns are already illegal now . . . Enforce the gun laws we have and we'll be in good shape. There's more than enough laws on the books."

Blagojevich counters by informing his opponent that AK47s, Uzis, and other assault rifles remain legal in Illinois.

Memo to Topinka: You can be against "gun control" while agreeing that AK47s and Uzis probably shouldn't be available to any aggrieved mope who struts into a Cicero gun shop. And showing a little compassion for those whose families and neighborhoods have been torn apart by gun violence wouldn't hurt either.

More importantly, Ms. Topinka, is enforcing the gun laws more stringently your only answer? Do you really think that will be enough? How do you intend to strengthen enforcement? Are you saying police officers are doing a lousy job enforcing the current laws?

SCORING: A no-brainer. A point for Blagojevich, and a half-point deduction for Topinka.

Blago 3. Topinka -1 1/2.

Seriously, is Topinka loaded? She's starting to just throw out names and phrases with no explanation to viewers - and often no verbs either. "Talked to Tony Rezko lately?" she asks the governor. Maybe only insiders watch City Desk - well, let's face it, only news geeks watch it - but any members of the public at-large watching by accident might not get the reference. They aren't stupid, they just have jobs.

Now, I happen to believe that the governor's association with folks like Tony Rezko, just one controversial member of Blagojevich's kitchen cabinet who appears to be in the sights of federal investigators, could blow up before the election. But running a smear campaign isn't the best way to score political points - the facts themselves are disturbing enough.

Blagojevich, ever the smooth-talker, shows Topinka how it's done. In questioning Topinka's practice of collecting campaign contributions from state employees, including her own, as well as collecting contributions from banks in which she deposits state money, Blagojevich says, "I'm not suggesting it's illegal, that's for others to decide." And then he suggests it's, well, if not illegal, certainly wrong.

Topinka, astonishingly, responds by claiming that Blagojevich is the most investigated governor in the history of Illinois. Has Topinka been frozen since the day of George Ryan's inauguration? In fact, Ryan was probably the most investigated governor in state history even before he actually became governor, given his criminal tenure as secretary of state.

Topinka also says that because the FBI has interviewed Blagojevich he must be in "hot water." Well, that certainly could be true. I think he's in trouble. But an FBI interview alone isn't sufficient to make the charge. There are plenty of reasons why the FBI would be interested in interviewing the governor, given the type of cases involving the administration that federal prosecutors are pursuing.

But Topinka doesn't stop there. She says it's a matter of "when, not if," Blagojevich will be indicted. I'd say it's still a question of "if." Unless Topinka has some inside information she'd like to share with the class, she might want to stick with what she knows, not what she hopes for.

Is this the kind of person we want to be governor? Someone of this temparament and disregard for facts who can't keep her mouth shut?

And again, what does Topinka propose? Where is her ethics package? Blagojevich did pass one, whatever you think of it.

Not only that, but Topinka is now interrupting both Blagojevich and Dick Kay repeatedly. It's aggravating.

Blagojevich, on the other hand, is missing a chance to rise above her peculiar performance by keeping his cool. Instead, he looks like the schoolboy being scolded by the mean, old, teacher.

Wait, she's not done!

"He's the new George Ryan!"

If only Blagojevich's comeback was: "And you're the old one!"

Topinka is going to have a hard time distancing herself from Ryan given that she was the chair of the Illinois Republican Party during Ryan's last two years as governor. (And in that capacity, she oversaw the wildly successful back-to-back Senate nominations of Jack Ryan and Alan Keyes.)

Who let all these morons in here?

SCORING: I can't give Blagojevich any points, and in fact, I deduct a point for his Little Boy Lost routine. Topinka, meanwhile, has not only every right, but a duty, to press Blagojevich on the ethical concerns of his administration. She'd be better off, though, trying the direct approach. "Governor," she should ask, "will you look into the camera right now and say you did not exchange seats on state boards and commissions for campaign contributions? Governor, will you say that donors received nothing in return for their money but your honest service - no jobs, no contracts, no access? Will you swear to us right now that this is true?"

But that's not what Topinka did. Instead, for a brief moment, she morphed into Andy Martin, earning a five-point deduction.

Blago 2. Topinka -6 1/2.

Don't roll your eyes, this is really about balancing the state budget. Actually, yes, roll your eyes.

Suffice to say, Blagojevich, who, in case you forgot, inherited a mess, has used smoke-and-mirrors to balance the budget. But Judy, where is your budget? What would you have done differently if you had been governor? What taxes would you have raised? None? Then what programs would you have cut?

SCORING: If you run as a candidate of change, you have to offer change. Topinka has yet to offer anything. No points for anyone. And no dessert.

Blago 2. Topinka -6 1/2.

Blagojevich keeps insisting he wants to talk about these topics. And I believe him. But it would just turn into a stump speech for him. After all, he can't attack Topinka's positions on these issues because she doesn't have any.

Topinka says Illinois is 46th in job creation, though later she seems to amend that to saying Illinois is in the "46th percentile" - of something. Blagojevich says the state ranks fourth in the nation in job creation.

Blago attacks Topinka for saying on her Website that her office created 100,000 jobs. (The Treasurer's Office creates jobs? I mean, besides for friends and family?)

Topinka says that might be a "misprint."

Topinka rips Blagojevich's plan to sell or lease the state lottery to fund school improvements. Blago asks where her education plan is. She says it's coming this summer.

Apparently, up to now, she hasn't really thought about education. She says she's "not in a rush." She spits out the words "mentoring" and "high-tech."

Blagojevich and Dick Kay, in effect, say to her, You've been a state legislator for 23 years, a treasurer for 11 years, and a candidate who has already gone through a primary and you don't have an education plan?

Kay: Would you scuttle the governor's plan?

Topinka: No, some of his ideas are very good.

Okay, then.

"Most investigated! FBI! Public Official A!"

Whoa, where did that come from? Is she stuck on some sort of tape loop?

SCORING: No points for Blagojevich because he's only doing his job, and not very well at that. But Topinka fumbles badly on her insistence that businesses are fleeing the state because of high taxes (isn't that from a really old Republican script, circa 1983?) and no plan whatsoever for our state's schools, to go along with the rest of her no plans. Minus five.

Blago 2. Topinka -11 1/2.

And that's being charitable - to both of them.


Posted on May 31, 2006

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