Friday, May 26, 2006

Rod and Judy: A Slugfest at the NBC Tower

Governor Rod Blagojevich and his challenger, Republican three term State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, both came out swinging in their first debate for the November 7, 2006 Gubernatorial Election. The venue was the taping today at noon of Dick Kay’s [NBC-5 News] last City Desk show. The show will air 9:00 am to 10:00 am this Sunday and again on Monday, Memorial Day, 11:00 am to 12:00 pm on NBC-5 in the Chicago metro area.

The show runs about an hour, and when you take out the commercials, you are left, by my count, with about 48 minutes of real debate. Not bad. Moreover, there were absolutely no ground rules and there was no disclosure beforehand by Kay as to issues, topics, etc. , and for the most part, Kay would throw a question or topic at one, and then the other would counter. Kay smartly let them run and gun, and run and gun they did.

This is a model for how to do the remaining nine or ten debates, a number to which both candidates now refer as the desired number. I might have thrown in a few more follow-ups, from time to time, if I were Kay, but all in all, Kay and his format were about a thousand times better than the conventional, staged, political "debates.” A few more of these and voter turnout could go up significantly

The highlights of the discussion are covered well by Rich Miller of Capitolfax [See here] and Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune and Deanna Bellandi of AP [See here]. However, there are a few small items to add and we’ll be back, perhaps, with more later.
Rod shot repeatedly at Judy’s refusal to support an Assault Weapon Ban and the increase in the minimum wage for Illinois which Blagojevich proposed and was passed by the Illinois legislature.

Quick to pull her trigger, Topinka argued essentially that we have enough gun laws- we just need to do a better job of enforcement. Topinka never really responded to Rod’s minimum wage argument. Instead, Judy spoke of “Rod’s bogus numbers,” for new jobs and argued Illinois had lost large numbers of jobs to surrounding states. She went on to argue that Illinois is in the 46th percentile in job creation, but we all knew she meant to say 46th out of 50 states [and most voters will get it that 46 is not good, whether it is 46 out of 50 or 46 out of 100]. [Ed. Note: Topinka perhaps will try, in the future, to argue that a differentially higher minimum wage in Illinois relative to surrounding states tends to retard job growth in Illinois. This argument would complement the general Republican argument that higher fees and taxes on business in Illinois under Blagojevich have slowed job growth in Illinois].

During her eight minute press conference that followed the debate [Actually, Kay said it should be called a discussion, not a debate, because of Kay’s unstructured format], Topinka cracked that maybe one of the ten debates should be in Madison, Wisconsin—where a lot of Illinois jobs have gone, and another in front of the U. S. Attorney’s office, in honor of all of the on-going investigations of Gov. Blagojevich’s administration.

During his fifteen minute, or so, post-taping press conference that followed Judy's, Blagojevich said, in response to the argument of Topinka about him being “Public Official A,” that her statement is not accurate and that Topinka makes reckless accusations and attacks. Further, as to the Topinka attack that his Administration is being widely investigated for public corruption, the Governor said, “not a single person has been accused of any wrongdoing in my administration that is close to me. However, under Governor Ryan, there were 60 indictments when Treasurer Topinka was there going along with that system…”

The ghost of the recently convicted [on RICO and other charges] former Republican Governor George Ryan will dog both candidates during this campaign.

Blagojevich touted, of course, among many new programs of his Administration, his All Kids healthcare insurance program, his Universal Pre-school program and his recently announced long term lease of the Illinois lottery system to help infuse six billion dollars into K-12 education spending by the state over the next four years. For her part, Topinka argued that Rod’s programs have insufficient or non-existent revenue sources, steal from the state employee and teacher pension funds-- and other state funds-- and will drive the state broke.

Topinka argued further that it makes no sense to develop programs that help the wealthy as well as those who need the help. Rod shot back that Topinka has no programs, just complaints, and that there is nothing wrong with helping middle class families with annual incomes of about $70,000 with their health insurance premiums.

There was nothing on social issues, unless you put guns in that category and many do. Kay perhaps concluded that there is not a lot of daylight between Judy and Rod on abortion and gay rights. On abortion, both Rod and Judy might disagree with Kay on that. Guns, as suggested today, could be a hot button, quick trigger issue, both upstate and downstate.

In short, “The discussion,” was probably a tie in terms of winning over voters. But, I will want to watch it on TV, without taking notes, just like the voters do before I decide that. I suggest you do the same.

In terms of looks, both the Governor and his challenger looked fit and relaxed: before, during and after the show. Governor Rod Blagojevich always has that look. However, Judy Baar Topinka seemed to be “off her game,” during the primary. Now, she seems to have found her stride. The Prime of Judy Baar Topinka? This could be an interesting race, after all.

I know NBC 5 News’ political editor of thirty-eight years, Dick Kay, couldn’t have been happier with the way the program came out. A great way for Dick to “go out.” And, anybody who knows Dick Kay knows that he is not quite done with covering politics.

Forty-six years in the business and Dick Kay still hasn’t had enough. You will be seeing more of Kay. You can make book on it.

Heck, Dick may come back and host the next nine debates. The viewers and the candidates could do far worse.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at