Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Candidates Gone Wild--TJ's Take

If you haven't read Carla's version of our evening at Candidates Gone Wild, take a gander (and be on the lookout for pictures!). I did indeed take notes, although they were sporadic, executed with one hand holding a tasty beverage, and increasingly scrawled as the evening (and my BAC) wore on.*

The first thing I noticed while we sat in the nearly-deserted "media" section police-taped in the last row, listening to a rather forgettable band (sorry Jake!) called the Retrofits warm up the crowd, was how much the atmosphere felt like a high school prom. Showy lighting, a faceless band (sorry again Jake!) providing background music, people milling around trying to look cool or standing in the glow of people who were, $5 beers...on the other hand, there was definitely no overdressing and no prom I've ever been to showed Eisenhower newsreels. (Maybe I'm just not old enough).

First up was the initial installment of candidate videos done by Bus Project-affilliated Public Media Works. On pure entertainment value, these were the highlight of the night. Each candidate but Dave Lister (who apparently was given a full invitation to CGW too late to have one produced for him) was filmed showing off their crib or pimping their ride, sometimes both. Dan Saltzman's humble abode looks about as creatively furnished as an East German mental hospital, but it's clean and unassuming--except for the big plasma screen, which looked like it was the only thing costing more than $50 in the entire house. How do I know this? I checked, and the doggy steps for his pooch to jump onto Dan's bed only run about $40. Dan's ride? So memorable I can't picture it now, although it had a hatch with Saltzman signs in the back.

In the 2nd part, former WWeek intern Adrian Chen may have started a new career for himself. Somewhat modeled after The Daily Show's Demetri Martin, Chen completely overshadowed every single candidate with his on-camera style. The "interviews" were a complete joke; in TDS style they were heavily edited and mismatched so that the candidates' answers became funny/creepy responses to suggestive questions. He certainly overshadowed Saltzman; I can't remember the first thing he said during his.

Ginny Burdick started off OK in her crib video, displaying the slightest sense of humanity by showing off her kids and revealing her taste for Carlo Rossi Rose' in the convenient 2 gal jug. The 80's-era Nordictrak showed a committment to both fitness and frugality, and the plastic handcuffs on the bed titillated for a moment...until I put the face with the cuffs and imagined Burdick ravishing a captive legislative aide kidnapped from Salem. The crowd liked her pimped ride(s)--man, that woman's gottalotta bikes.

I wish I could tell you why Burdick asked in her interview if they wanted her to dance, but I cannot. It was a great setup for showcasing Chen's endearingly nerdy vogueing, but Burdick did some sort of arrythmic patty cake thing with her hands that I can only imagine she learned tossing pizzas as a teenager. Maybe it was related to her admission that "I'm more into meth than heroin." Would she recover from this opening example of her extreme awkwardness? (Hint: the answer is no)

At this point it was time to bring out the candidates. Amanda Fritz was resplendent in leather jacket and sparkly black blouse, clearly embracing the fun side of the event (as were her supporters, who apparently heard it was a masked ball of some kind). Dave Lister nearly sprained something in his attempt to bound on stage in jocular fashion, while Erik Sten soaked up the biggest cheer just for being there. That turned out to be a pattern. Diane Linn was also decked out in leather, perhaps to look suitably butch for her large contingent of gay-rights supporters in the house.

After the introductions, Bus Project leader Jefferson Smith took the stage and led the candidates in a "test your knowledge" Portland trivia game, and then a Family Feud derivative pitting incumbents vs challengers--with the added feature of a randomly selected jury giving their own collective answers via electronic paddles. It was worth a couple icebreaking giggles to have Smith refer to the jury twiddling their knobs or playing with that thing in their laps. The candidate teams had to guess what the jury would say, and also select the policy choice they would seriously choose. Linn started off with a bang, answering that the price of a Multno County marriage license was in fact "priceless." At that stage, I thought, "Damn--maybe she can pull this off after all."

Dave Lister got the first sustained BOOO of the night, when he made the mistake of saying "well, the public is often misguided." At this point, challenger Ted Wheeler grabbed his chair and mock-bolted his teammates out of self-preservation. Beyond that, Smith provided the only laughs with his commentary. The questions were a little lame, and the "correct" answers seemed obvious.

After that we had videos for Sten and Linn. Sten did not give us a window into his habitat, opting instead for a rather goofy segment in which he rode shotgun in an old (but unique) blue delivery van. Like a cherubic milkman, Sten hung himself out the doorway and got in a little free campaigning with passersby, since he was out on the town already.

Guts or stupidity? I am no neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, but Diane Linn lives like a slob. Colicky babies after spitting up have cleaner cribs than Diane. Maybe it's no worse than my place--it was more the clutter of books, newspapers and laundry than anything truly nasty like moldy bananas under the couch--but I'm not running for re-election, and I'm not letting cameras into my house. She admitted she was in charge of the dishes, as she walked by a sinkful with a couple of ants crawling across, and ruefully pointed out the Xmas tree in back--still stuck to the tree holder, browner than Chief Foxworth's naked chocolate body. What WAS she thinking? She played a great unintentional straightwoman to Adrian Chen though, shaking her head sadly as Chen asked her what games she liked: strip poker? Strip mancala? Strip Final Fantasies 1 through 7? Strip bean bag?--no wait, they got rid of their strip bean bag game. I was dying.

The only vaguely serious part of the evening was the "On the Hot Seat" segment, in which a panel of three tough questioners made things as uncomfortable as possible for the candidates. Wendy Radmacher-Willis of Portland City Club, a guy whose name I did not catch WW News Editor Hank Stern**, and blog gadfly Jack Bogdanski formed the panel, and they did not spare the candidates grief. It was noted that smart and funny is better than stupid and boring...but if you have to choose, stupid is better than boring. When asked about the tram and the lack of women on Council, it became clear that Saltzman should have opted for stupid.

Ted Wheeler had his best moments on the hot seat, which I suppose is a strong selling point once the hilarity was over. He was not at all intimidated, and in fact tried to put the questioners on the defensive, responding to a question about why he shouldn't blame the whole County Commission by saying that "the chair sets the tone." When they asked what he was trying to prove by driving a Ford Focus when everyone knows he's got money bleeding out of his pores, he turned indignant: "There are going to be 2,500 people sleeping on the streets tonight, 450 of them kids, 50,000 people needed drug treatment...and you want to ask about my Ford Focus???" Wheeler is kind of like Jerry Seinfeld in that even his anger seems innocuous, so he totally got away with it and came off looking strong and principled.

The best was followed by the worst: Ginny Burdick couldn't have convinced a man in a blizzard he might want a parka. When asked about her ties to Gard and Gerber, the best she could come up with was "Gard and Gerber are not on the ballot; Ginny Burdick is." Yeah--and without them, you'd slip right off it yourself. As if that weren't bad enough, in response to a question about the Fire and Police disability system, she devolved into a droning, incomprehensible answer that had audience members shouting "give her the horn!"--the air horn used to signify non-responsive responses.

Lister was about the same on the hot seat as he was during the City Club debate a couple months ago: cheerfully dismissive and incurably confident. His response to why he thought he'd do better on Council than Sten: "How can I do any worse?" Plus he got the biggest boo of the night, when his own biggest supporter--Jack Bog--asked him how many times he'd pulled a lever marked "Bush" in federal elections. Answer: three. Lister was brave to answer the question straight up, but the audience reaction was as if he'd announced he wanted Tipper Gore to handle the band booking at Doug Fir.

From the biggest boo to hands down the biggest cheer, we move on to Erik Sten's kid-on-the-high-chair hotseat moment. In response to a question from Bog about his oft-reported "big idea" failures, Sten ripped off a zinger: "If we were never going to make mistakes, we should all go home and write blogs." Swatting away the accusations of failure like a bothersome insect, Sten built his own frame: "What you describe as failure, I see as steps for real change." The crowd--pro-Sten or not--ate it up.

Diane Linn struggled through her set of questions, and never did address the current accusations against her, but she did manage to try and put one over on the crowd: "our accomplishments, our financial situation--that's a well kept secret." Also a well kept secret, at least to me: Fritz's appearance on the hot seat, because I have not a single note about it. I do recall she rather unconvincingly declared she would not protect the public safety unions from FPDR reform, and she seemed a little knocked off her game by the harsh questioning, but overall she made no gaffes and had no illuminating answers. Her interview was similarly uneventful, but her pimped Zentra--a Nissan Sentra painted and upholstered entirely in zebra stripes--was worth seeing. Once again no view of the crib, as with Ted Wheeler, who demurred on showing us his actual crib that probably would have done the real show justice. Instead we were treated to his climbing tent, which was mildly funny and fairly charming.

The talent portion of the show ran the gamut. Fritz performed the Heimlich maneuver on an inflatable Godzilla, but the upward thrusts she performed on the big blowup lizard looked more like a scene from Brokeback Jurassic Park. A visual joke to be sure, but it was fun to watch and actually informative if you don't know how to do the Heimlich. Ginny Burdick did the top 10 ideas if she were "voter-owned." Most flat out sucked, the others suffered from her delivery, reminiscient of Jimmy, the crippled kid from South Park who does the world's worst standup. Had she mastered the art of timing, she might have gotten decent laughs out of "Open Wapato Jail to future VOE candidates" and "Thong Thursday." Alas, she fell flatter than Kate Moss under a steamroller.

Wheeler had rather a talent by proxy; he brought in mountaineering equipment he apparently uses, but only demonstrated them in the context of their utility for a political campaign. He got a nice laugh out of using his GPS as a way to keep track of his poll numbers, and that of his opponent..."Oh, my GOD!" Speaking of his opponent, Linn did a karaoke number that had her female supporters swaying in the aisle. Some are calling it courageous, but you don't need to be courageous if you're any good, and she wasn't. Maybe it hurt her that I had no idea what the hell she was singing, or maybe that it sounded like bad Christian rock. But no, I think it was her inability to carry a tune.

Sten may have put the most thought into his routine--he showed up decked out in full wizard regalia, including a pointed hat that tripled his total height, and performed a magic trick in which a miniaturized version of Burdick (and her "mean and nasty ads") were disappeared. Sten's clearly an amateur at magic, but to close the show we were treated to a little magic on the harmonica by Lister. For those who had written him off as a grumpy old conservative out of his element, his ability with the blues harp was a welcome surprise. For whatever it's worth, Lister's talent was far and away the best performance, and achieved all he could hope for from the crowd--he appeared human.

Carla and I were certainly pleased to be a part of the event, and duly gratified for the gratis seating. It really is a great civic event, one that make politics fun and interesting--something we should all wish for. Major props to WWeek and the Bus Project for their efforts, and we look forward to doing it all again in 2008.

*I got home by bus and cab, thanks for asking.
**Thank you, Jack. See how CGW brings people together?