.DTA Turns Candidate Forum Upside Down

There’s a tradition in Santa Cruz of candidate forums that are drier than stale toast.

Typically, a moderator with a list of questions holds a piece of paper and asks something along the lines of “Why is economic development important?” Then the City Council candidates, who are seated at a long table, ramble on for an eternity before smiling and handing the mic down to the next person.

“What usually happens at a typical forum is a group of us gets together and says, ‘OK, what are the questions?’ and the questions usually end up being leading questions whether you want them to be leading or not,” says Chip, the executive director of the Downtown Association (DTA). “The candidates tell you what they think you want to hear.”

This year, in lieu of a traditional forum, the DTA is inviting people to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 22, when council candidates will each give a nearly seven-minute presentation on their vision for downtown.

“Our big hope is that this will get the community thinking about the decisions the City Council makes and can make for downtown,” Chip says. “And what do we want to see in the next chapter? Downtown 2.0—or whatever version we’re on right now.”

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The new format, a presentation style called PechaKucha that hails from Tokyo, lets candidates show 20 PowerPoint slides and speak for 20 seconds per slide. The DTA is hoping it will steer candidates away from pandering and inspire them to talk about what they really believe.

Candidate Sandy Brown, a downtown resident, is already loving the experiment. “I’m really excited to break out of the mold that we’ve been in for several decades now—those of us that have been involved in electoral politics,” says Brown, who is also a labor organizer and assistant professor.

She pictures a Pacific Avenue that’s more inviting and accessible to tourists and locals alike, saying she would like for local governments to be more supportive of local small businesses.

The Sept. 22 PechaKucha will have a tabling area for local nonprofits and stakeholders, like the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center, the Museum of Art & History, the Coastal Watershed Council and the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Chip concedes that the new setup won’t let a moderator ask tough follow-up questions at the event if someone makes up some lofty facts

“It’s totally up to them. There is a risk,” Chip says. “We can have a candidate sell us a nice vision that’s based on nothing, but who knows?”

Of course, there are other approaches for keeping candidates honest, too. The best forum I ever attended was 2012’s InsideScoop at Kuumbwa Jazz, hosted by Cruzio, Santa Cruz Next and Civinomics. Moderators posed different rapid-fire questions for various candidates to keep everyone guessing. At a couple of points, they asked for “a show of hands” to see who supported items like public wireless Internet or a Tannery project for tech.

All night, they teased, and even mocked, candidates who gave lame answers.

Chip remembers helping host a similar forum with then-GT news editor Chris J. Magyar in 2008. “We totally had fun with it,” Chip remembers, of his pre-executive director days. “And I was kind of a color commentator. He knew all of the issues inside and out, and I got to be a smartass.”

The forum will be at 6-9 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 22. Visit downtownsantacruz.com to register. Free. 


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