Walls’ sharp elbows change dynamic of mayoral debates

SHARE Walls’ sharp elbows change dynamic of mayoral debates

Practically nobody in the news media expects mayoral candidate William “Dock” Walls to have much of an impact on the final election results. I sure don’t.

After Walls received just 8.8 percent of the vote in the 2007 mayor’s race followed by less than 1 percent in the 2011 contest, the trend line does not bode well for his prospects.

But if you put Walls in a room with the four other candidates and give him his run of the microphone, then he can have a very big impact on the discussion — as anybody who saw this week’s Chicago Tribune Editorial Board debate can attest.

Walls’ aggressive performance seemed to catch Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s other challengers off guard as he attacked them with as equal vigor as he did the mayor. His frequent interruptions clearly exasperated the others, who must have felt they were stuck debating the wrong guy.

With four more debates coming up in the next two weeks in which Emanuel has agreed to participate, the question of whether Walls will share the stage now looms as a larger matter.

When I talked to Walls Wednesday afternoon, he said he’d only been invited to one of the remaining debates with Emanuel, a Feb. 5 candidate forum on WLS-Channel 7 in conjunction with the League of Women Voters, and was unsure about the rest.

As a measure of how sticky this can be, Walls had not been invited to attend Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times’ Editorial Board meeting debate when I sat down to write this column, but by the time I finished, I was told an invite would be extended to him after all.

I think the best explanation for the change of heart is pretty much what Walls argues: “There is no objective basis for eliminating or excluding me.”

Objective or subjective, a spokesman for WTTW-Channel 11 said Walls is not among the four candidates invited to participate in its Feb. 4 mayoral forum on “Chicago Tonight.”

“Chicago Tonight has a long history of hosting candidate forums prior to important elections. We make these difficult decisions in order to give maximum air time to those candidates whose campaigns appear to be of the most interest to voters,” said a statement from “Chicago Tonight” executive producer Mary Field.

Late Wednesday, a spokesman for the Chicago Urban League and Business Leadership Council said all five mayoral candidates, including Walls, have been invited to its Feb. 10 debate on CBS 2 Chicago and WVON radio.

This is an old problem that crops up whenever there is a multi-candidate field in an important race. The issue is whether every candidate who makes the ballot should be invited to debate or only those regarded as viable contenders.

Strictly from the perspective of having a good debate, you generally get a more informative discussion when fewer candidates are involved. The televised debates also have time limits, and every minute is precious.

But excluding any candidate can be seen as undemocratic or discriminatory.

To get around the problem, debate hosts often try to set some objective criteria, such as requiring that only candidates polling above a certain threshold can be invited.

In this mayor’s race, however, there hasn’t been enough public polling to offer any real guidance.

All the other campaigns say they have no problem with allowing Walls to debate, which is what they must say.

Emanuel’s campaign even gave me a statement: “The Mayor feels strongly that all candidates should have a seat at the table so that voters can hear each contender’s record and plan to continue moving Chicago forward.”

Of course, it also plays nicely into the mayor’s hands when it’s that much more difficult for voters to sort through his opponents and identify one who might be a viable alternative.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Ald. Robert Fioretti, in particular, surely must have been pointing to these debates as a free opportunity to try to show themselves as the mayor’s equal, given their inability to match his advertising budget.

Instead, they find themselves being pulled back into the barrel by Walls.

I mean no harm to Walls, who lives and breathes his community activism and comes honestly by his passion for the city and its neighborhoods, although I don’t think he would have any business being mayor.

“At least I bring excitement to the table,” Walls told me Wednesday in reference to his debating, arguing that any group that leaves him out will do so its own detriment. “They’re going to end up with a black eye.”

A serious candidate might have taken a hint after getting less than 1 percent of the vote. Walls says that was an entirely different election.

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