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Video: Aberdeen City/School Candidates Speak Before Small-Group Chats

The Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters held a quasi-forum yesterday for Aberdeen’s city commission candidates and school board candidates. Candidates each got five minutes to make prepared remarks. No one ran time cards, so the three incumbents all ran well over time. Then, instead of the usual format of posing questions from the audience to all of the candidates, the sponsors broke the audience into small groups and had the candidates rotate from group to group at ten-minute intervals for conversations.

This format may be nice for more direct citizen interaction with candidates—instead of having to get everything off their chest in one question and then yielding the floor to the candidates, small-group participants can engage the candidates in more back and forth. However, this format makes fair rebroadcast and reporting of the event and fair comparison of candidates impossible:

  1. Pointing a video camera at citizens in a small circle of eight or ten chairs deters open conversation.
  2. With three small groups yesterday (two candidates per group), any single reporter would have missed two thirds of the potentially newsworthy comments made by candidates and voters.
  3. The two school board candidates sat together in the small groups, which is great, but the city council candidates divided up so that the two friendly incumbents sat together with one group while the two closely aligned Republican challengers sat together with another group. In both cases, the city council candidates would likely reinforce each others’ messages within their groups while denying each group the chance to compare their actual choices side by side.
  4. The small crowds at candidate forums in Aberdeen make it easy for a candidate to load the small groups with friendly faces. Of the 26 attendees I counted at yesterday’s event, at least ten were friends and family already committed to one candidate or another, another six or eight were Chamber of LWV members, and two of us were press. That leaves maybe eight genuinely disinterested voters, enough for one fair small group. With just three circles yesterday, Char Cornelius, northeast city council candidate, could seed each group with a family member to drive conversation in her favor.
  5. Given the impracticality of recording all small group conversations, the only content left to share with the public after the fact are the prepared opening speeches, which, as we know from crackerbarrels, are less instructive and often less relevant than candidates’ responses to voters’ questions and to each other.

Thus, here are the mostly canned speeches the candidates presented at Tuesday’s event:

Aberdeen City Council candidates, northeast district:

Challenger Char Cornelius led off with a scripted, somewhat nervous biography. On policy, the Brown County Republican Party chairwoman spoke of her desire to see “safe and controlled” growth in Aberdeen. She avoided the meaning that some of her more rabidly xenophobic local Republican party members would express (No refugees! No Muslims!) by referring to the explosion in crime and housing prices that took place in the Bakken oil fields. Of course, there is no shale oil exploration or other potential boom happening in Brown County, so her comparison to an extreme outlier of economic growth is inapt. Aberdeen is nowhere near growing too fast.

Incumbent Rob Ronayne followed with no script and a smoother delivery. The lawyer and bank board member pointed to the facility in which the forum was taking place, the new K.O. Lee Public Library, as one of his proudest achievements on the city council. In what I’d like to imagine as a subtle response to Cornelius’s code words for her Republican base’s fears, Ronayne said the council has “diverse backgrounds, diverse interests.” He also said that much of the city council’s work is mundane, taking care of water, trash, and snow.

Aberdeen City Council candidates, southwest district:

Dan Richardt was on script but smooth. The car salesman said he wants to be a voice for all, “not just a certain demographic,” which in this context I take to mean the older established powers. (Perhaps Dan is angling to be Aberdeen’s Paul TenHaken?) He said he is fiscally conservative but pro-growth.

Incumbent Alan Johnson gave the quirkiest speech of the event. After opening with a decent line complimenting the “informed citizens” in the audience for our “common interest in good government,” the hotel marketer made this weird intro: “I’m delighted to introduce myself as Alan Johnson, an excellent candidate for southwest district on city council.” Then he told a joke about the lady who ate a gift parrot (The parrot “should have said something.”) Later in the speech he referred to being elected in 2013 and now coming to voters “the same guy, only better!”

Like Ronayne, Johnson referred to the mundane practicalities of the city council’s job: building the library and bike path, controlling pigeons, and passing the ordinance to allow backyard chickens.

Johnson was the only candidate with his radar tuned to seize the opportunity of a large audience to promote his website, He was also the only take an open shot at his opponent, declaring “I have a twenty-year head start on the other candidate in leadership experience, familiarity with the task at hand, building friendships with key players, and service to community.”

Aberdeen School Board candidates

Incumbent Linda Burnette was unable to attend. She submitted a written statement to be recited (rather drearily and haltingly, which is another reason candidates can’t afford to miss forums!) by the moderator.

Eighteen-year incumbent Brad Olson spoke of the need for ACT prep, social media issues, and school safety. He noted that the school board just approved funding for a third full-time school resource officer, meaning instead of sharing a police officer, each of Aberdeen’s middle schools will now have a full-time armed cop in the halls. Olson also said he has never supported and will never support an opt-out. He speculated that Aberdeen voters would likely reject an opt-out 90–10 and said that our school should live within its means.

Olson did not apply the same conservatism to his time budget: he spoke for nine minutes, going four minutes over time, the longest of the six speakers at yesterday’s forum.

Long-time teacher and coach Mark Murphy hit the five-minute mark right on the money. He spoke of growing up on 9th Avenue North, east of O.M. Tiffany Elementary, in the 1960s, when there was nothing north of his house but farm fields. Murphy said his run for school board is not about any agenda of problems; he just wants to continue the tradition of quality education that his family has enjoyed. As priorities, Murphy listed school safety, rigorous academic preparation, support for teachers and staff, and working with the Chamber of Commerce and city in “planning the future”

Both city council races are outside my northwest district, so I don’t get to vote there. But for school board, how could I not support a teacher and coach like Murphy who continues to serve as a teacher mentor? The only problem is, if I pick Murphy, I have to give up one of my two decent incumbents. Choices, choices….


  1. DR 2018-05-09 08:18

    Char could have done that…but she didn’t. They all sat together.

  2. DR 2018-05-09 08:22

    Paul TenHaken huh?

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-05-09 10:12

    I could also compare you to Jolene Loetscher. Vote returns on June 5 will tell us which comparison is more apt. :-)

    But by “demographic”, were you referring to the young/old split?

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-05-09 10:14

    Having the family members all sit together and thus form half or more of one small group is equally problematic. Suppose LWV/Chamber replicate this format in the Legislative race. Suppose Al Novstrup brings his whole family, and they all sit in one small group, and I bring a herd of my relatives to sit together in another small group. Does either candidate benefit from spending ten minutes of a public forum sitting with a cluster of the opponent’s family members whose minds are probably already made up? Do the opponent’s family members really have anything to ask of either candidate?

  5. DR 2018-05-09 11:17

    Not necessarily, but that was part of it. It could mean what income level you are part of, your race, religion, orientation.

    As far as the format, I see both sides. Last night was more personal which may work better when you have a larger group.

    The most common question I heard last night was tennis courts and what should be done there. Something needs to be done. I proposed adding to the courts at Melgaard Park and finding space at Wylie. 12 courts in Aberdeen(I think that is right) is not enough for 26,000 people, especially when you are hosting the CC Lee Tournament.
    NSU was also discussed and the requested $5 million from Aberdeen.
    Last group I was a part of asked what I would suggest for the old library. My response was we should have sold it to the chamber and CVB when they offered to buy it. The current council wants to get fair market value for an “old, dilapidated, building.” It should be off our books.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-05-09 14:13

    Are there demographic groups whose voices are not being proportionately heard in city government?

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