Florida politics has always been a keen interest of mine, and so the recent Capital Tiger Bay Club debate between Corey Simon and incumbent Senator Loranne Ausley promised to be an interesting one.
As the only seriously contested race in the Big Bend area, this particular contest is of utmost importance because Republicans could attain complete control of the upper chamber if they reach the two-thirds threshold.
Simon, a political newcomer, is well-known to Seminole fans as a prolific and successful football player who not only helped FSU win a national championship but also went on to play professionally before retiring in 2007. From there, he launched a career giving back to his community, including his most recent stint as CEO of Volunteer Florida.
Senator Ausley is from a famous political family and is a lawyer by training who served eight years in the House before serving the last two years as a Senator. She proudly advocates for disabled children’s issues, and she has served on a host of legislative committees and therefore knows all about our state’s needs and services.
Gary Fineout, a veteran Tallahassee reporter, served as the debate moderator and asked questions that he pointed out were advanced by Tiger Bay members, along with some of his own. That is why it struck me as being rather odd that almost every question was about a controversial social issue rather than a combination of some social issues and some business issues, a standard format favored in most debates.
As a former collegiate debater, I’m always interested in debates because it gives us all a chance to see how people running for office perform answering questions within a time limit. To prepare for a debate, the time-honored tradition is for candidates and incumbents to practice their answers so that they can convey them in the most succinct fashion and without making a factual mistake. I’ve been involved in these before and typically, the rehashing of Q and A ahead of time helps a person to hone their responses.
The easiest questions to answer in a debate are always those that involve matters of the heart, a principle that reflects who they are and what they stand for. I was disappointed that so many social issue questions were asked, as most of us that pay attention to politics can readily discern what the answers will automatically be whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. The answers are as predictable as the sunrise. And given that the Capital Tiger Bay Club has more Democratic members than Republicans, it seemed rather obvious that the tenor of the questions, and the reaction of the crowd, helped Ausley much more than Simon, and the straw ballot results proved that.
But as I watched, I also realized that Ausley was not actually answering these social questions from her heart or her experience, but rather from a cheat sheet of pre-prepared answers. She literally read them verbatim from her notes. I am not implying that the questions were provided in advance, but rather they were simply so predictable and devoid of challenge that her debate performance appeared to be on autopilot. For questions about abortion, or gun control, she should have had no need to turn pages in a notebook full of facts and figures to answer the question. All she had to do was to speak from her own perspective, from her beliefs.
That’s not what happened, though. Senator Ausley instead read from previously prepared talking points on a piece of paper. Is our incumbent state senator honestly not prepared to answer questions that she should intuitively be able to answer? It’s not like she was asked about per capita spending on education, or the latest figures on unemployment, which might require one to examine her notes. Instead, she read virtually all of her answers to the Tiger Bay Club audience word for word.
The proof that she was using pre-prepared answers was when the top of her lectern started to fall apart (for some reason, the wooden top separated from the stand) and while she was trying to grab her notebook of answers and keep the lectern from falling on her, her opponent, Simon, rushed to grab the lectern top. It was at that point that Ausley clutched her notebook and let Simon set aside the top. The debate continued with a wry comment from Simon, “This proves that we can work together!” to much laughter in the room.
But there was Ausley tightly holding her notebook in her hands lest anyone get a hold of it, and when she moved to speak from Simon’s own lectern, she put the notebook atop it and continued to read all of her answers. There wasn’t one question asked that Ausley didn’t read from her notebook.
Simon, on the other hand was relaxed and confident in his answers, none of which were written down for him, and he was game for any questions asked.
I’ve seen this once before at a 2006 Florida TaxWatch forum, not a debate, in South Florida when former State Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher was running in the GOP primary against then-Attorney General Charlie Crist for Governor. Tom, a seasoned political veteran read his campaign speech and it seemed so odd and contrived that someone who had been around for so long and was running the fourth time for the governorship that he felt compelled to read his speech. By this time, one would have thought he could have given his speech in his sleep. Charlie, on the other hand, had his presentation memorized perfectly and he gave it his all. Of course, history shows that Charlie won that race and went on to become Governor.
There is every reason for Ausley to be very concerned in this race because legislative redistricting has reconstituted this district and the performance numbers indicate only a 2% difference between Dems and Repubs which makes this a very contestable race for the GOP. This race is up for grabs.
Perhaps that’s why she felt like there was no room for errors.
Barney Bishop III is a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and recently became a Republican voter. He is the former CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and is currently the CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting, a strategic public affairs firm in Tallahassee. He can be reached at Barney@BarneyBishop.com