Friday, December 4, 2020
Dec. 4, 2020

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Camden: Who won secretary of state debate? Maybe the public

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After moderating last week’s secretary of state debate between Kim Wyman and Tina Podlodowski at Spokane Falls Community College, several people asked me “Who won?”

Not on television, fortunately, while I was squinting into the lights of a camera and hooked up to an audio feed to the newsroom at KHQ, which was live broadcasting that debate and the impending governor’s debate.

Most moderators will tell you that they are the least likely people in the entire universe to figure out who won the debate they were in the middle of.

I spent the hour watching the clock to make sure neither candidate talked longer than the allotted time — neither did, but both were very good at using every second they had — figuring out who was getting the next question and what that question would be, while listening to the answers to the current question.

There’s also the video factor. Debates look different to people watching on TV than they do to people in the room.

One reader asked why someone else wrote the newspaper’s story of that debate. The ethical reason is reporters don’t write about something in which they are involved. The practical reason is no one can take the notes necessary to write a story while doing all the things a moderator is supposed to do.

KHQ’s Sean Owsley moderated the governor’s debate, which allowed me to slip into the back row of the theater which was reserved for the news media and settle down to a more familiar reporter’s role: listening to the candidates and monitoring their campaigns’ tweets and press releases in which each side claimed a smashing victory.

So I can’t tell you who won the secretary of state debate, other than maybe the public, which often doesn’t see a debate for that office broadcast live to much of the state and available online for the rest of it.

But I can tell you the most unusual thing about the whole event.

Before a debate, there’s a coin toss to see who gets to have the first opening statement or the last closing statement.

Strategists can disagree on which is the more important, but those two slots are the most coveted because they have the best chance to stick in people’s minds unless one candidate hits the other with the equivalent of “I served with John Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no John Kennedy.”

Fifteen minutes before the debate, staff from one of the sponsors, the Association of Washington Business, took me down to the hallway between dressing areas for the toss. As Wyman and Podlodowski approached from different ends of the hall, one thing was obvious: They were wearing practically the same outfit.

Podlodowski had a red blazer over a black top and black slacks. Wyman had a red blazer over a black top and black skirt. And while there are many shades of red, the color of these jackets was so similar the thread could have come from the same dye lot.

I think that hue on the palette is known as “Nancy Reagan red.” It is somewhere between “Donald Trump ball cap red” and “Network television election map Republican red.”

It broke the tension. Everybody laughed, and we flipped the coin.

It could have been worse

Various political geeks and some news media colleagues who were watching the debate online through a live feed from the SFCC theater knew something that neither I nor live audience knew:

In the minutes before the event started, the online camera feed was showing me backstage, where the microphone was live.

Some assumed — correctly — that I wasn’t paying attention to the live mic, and they were waiting to see if I would utter some inappropriate expletive or knock over a water bottle as the podiums were moved into place and wires taped down.

Only by the grace of God, I did not.

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