Incumbent Mark Milbrandt and challenger Dan Kaiser met Wednesday for the closest thing we’ll get to a live debate between the candidates for Brown County Sheriff. I don’t have a dog in this fight—Milbrandt’s victory means a continuation of the status quo, and Kaiser, while promising various changes, likely won’t do anything that affects my daily life or the enforcement of laws in my community. (And no matter whom I favor, there’s someone I disfavor who could write me a ticket for reckless bicycling.) Besides, as a voter disenfranchised by the closed-primary system, I don’t get to cast a ballot, so I won’t make any active decision.
Therefore, it’s a little easier in this race for me to put on my debate judge hat and objectively analyze who won Wednesday’s “debate”. We’ll look at style first, then substance.
Appearances: Kaiser dressed for the job, jacket and tie. Milbrandt dressed as just another older guy going out to coffee. Conventional advice to debaters and job applicants says Kaiser won this category.
Delivery: Three Legislative campaigns appear to have polished Kaiser’s public speaking skills a bit more than Milbrandt’s. I heard a little more signposting and preparation of message in his comments. Milbrandt hasn’t faced an election competitor since 1994 and thus isn’t quite as used to packaging his extensive knowledge and experience for campaign soundbites.
Strategy: Kaiser seized the offensive and pressed it throughout, accusing Milbrandt of a variety of failings. Putting your opponent on defense is good strategy, because it drags your opponent off his message and forces him to talk about yours. Unfortunately for Kaiser, Milbrandt is pretty good at defense. He didn’t rush to counter Kaiser’s attacks: while Kaiser slapped Milbrandt with an allusion to the sexual harassment Kaiser’s wife experienced in the sheriff’s office in 2011 in his opening statement, Milbrandt kept cool and stuck with his folksy/friendly biographical opening remarks. Through two questions, he stuck with discussing his own superior experience and the much broader scope of work he does as sheriff than Kaiser does as a city policeman.
Not until the third question, about proposed changes in the sheriff’s office, did Milbrandt counterattack, and he did so powerfully. After Kaiser brought up of his own volition a rumor that Kaiser plans to fire everybody in the sheriff’s office if elected, Milbrandt pointed out all of his black-shirted staff who had come to watch the forum. Milbrandt said those staffers are upset about the things Kaiser says and were willing to tell anyone willing to speak after the forum that Kaiser is “totally wrong.” That blanket denial, backed up with the authority of around 20 distinctly and uniformly dressed audience members all seated toward the front on Milbrandt’s side (wait—what was I saying about Milbrandt not preparing quite as much as Kaiser?), made Milbrandt look like Britain against Kaiser’s blitzkrieg.
Memorable Lines: There was one, and that was Milbrandt’s capper to his counterstrike. Right after he’d delivered his ask-my-staff response, answering question #4 about what sets each candidate apart from his opponent, Milbrandt said, “I’m a sheriff, he’s a politician.” The mostly Republican audience responded with stunned ooohs and laughter touched with nervousness to hear such an aggressive and pointed dismissal of one of their political favorites. I don’t like the use of politician as a derogatory term, but Milbrandt used that common trope deftly to both answer the question succinctly and to land a punch that everyone in the room felt. No single sentence Kaiser said had the same impact in the room or plays as well as a campaign slogan that actually sums up differences as Milbrandt’s best line.
Message Consistency: Kaiser tried to play the Republican politician by citing his “conservative ideology.” Yet Kaiser’s use of the political trope does not fit with all the changes he seeks to make, not just in who holds the sheriff’s office but what the office does. Kaiser is proposing new policies and new technology. True conservatives are cautious about making changes, and Milbrandt offers the most cautious approach of sticking with what works. Milbrandt even sounded the fiscal conservatism note by pointing out that the body cameras that Kaiser mentioned cost more than body microphones, and that the sheriff’s office has to live with a budget.
The messaging that worked for Kaiser in Legislative campaigns showed further inconsistency with this contest for this office when he tried to cast Milbrandt as a gun-grabbing liberal for allegedly lobbying against pro-Second Amendment legislation and maintaining an illegal list of concealed-pistol permitholders. Milbrandt did not engage either of these charges, so I don’t have text on the flow to weight the claims. But the suggestion that a man whose job involves carrying a gun is anti-gun doesn’t make sense. As Kaiser himself acknowledged in a later question on marijuana policy, the sheriff does not make law; the sheriff enforces the law. As long as the Second Amendment is the supreme law of the land, the sheriff is bound to enforce it, and Kaiser presented no evidence that Sheriff Milbrandt has spent the last 24 years in office confiscating firearms from any law-abiding citizens. The accusation that the sheriff is maintaining an illegal list of permitholders, for which Kaiser has yet to present evidence, seems akin to the absurd accusations of secret conspiracies by Obama, Clinton, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce lodged by Neal Tapio and out-of-state speakers at the “educational refugee meetings” Kaiser proudly attends to slake his thirst for vile xenophobic propaganda.
Yeah, I’m a little biased on that point. But Kaiser’s attempt to campaign for sheriff on the talking points that he and his Republican colleagues deploy in their political campaigns—”conservative ideology”, Second Amendment, and immigration—gives Milbrandt’s zinger some substance: Kaiser is talking like a politician, while Milbrandt, who mostly ignored those talking points, is talking like a sheriff.
Responses and Rebuttals: Both candidates responded directly to most questions reasonably well, with the exception of the questions on diversity, where Kaiser at least said he’d make the hiring process more open and honest to avoid the sex discrimination of which he accused Milbrandt. Milbrandt’s response to that charge was emphatic but legalistic, saying no federal investigations or lawsuits have led to action against his office. Milbrandt also made no nod toward the importance of diversity in his office… but in front of a mostly Republican lunch audience, ignoring diversity probably hurt Milbrandt less than passionately defending the value of diversity in hiring decisions would have. (And notice: Kaiser didn’t say, “Diversity is a really important value”; he only used the diversity question as a springboard to introduce his wife’s EEOC complaint into the debate.)
On other questions, both candidates had ready answers, but Milbrandt showed a greater ability to respond to his opponent’s statements on sheriff’s office operations. When Kaiser said he hears complaints that the sheriff’s office is slow on serving papers, Milbrandt noted that his office serves 4,000 papers a year (that’s about eleven a day) amidst all their other duties and that some people who need to be served are hard to find. Kaiser talked about the need to raise revenue; Milbrandt says his office generates revenue with the jail and juvenile detention center. Kaiser said the sheriff’s office needs a policy manual; Milbrandt says the office already has four.
On his side, Milbrandt consistently spoke of the additional and different duties that the sheriff’s office does that the city police department doesn’t. Kaiser can’t say that he has more experience doing all of the duties MIlbrandt listed, but in this forum, Kaiser failed to offer any rebuttal that showed definitively that Milbrandt is not carrying out those duties effectively or that Kaiser can carry out those duties more effectively. And, far from rebutting Milbrandt’s crystallizing attack of “I’m a sheriff, he’s a politician,” Kaiser’s own rhetoric reinforced the idea that Kaiser is more about political arguments while Milbrandt is more attentive to practical operations.
Reason for Decision: From a truly conservative perspective, Kaiser, the proponent of change, has the affirmative burden of proof. Milbrandt, the proponent of the status quo, has the negative burden of refuting whatever attacks Kaiser puts “on the flow” (i.e., on the record, in the debate). Kaiser entered the debate with his prepared attacks. Milbrandt effectively responded to most of those attacks. Kaiser failed to advance beyond his prepared attacks to put further firm rebuttal on the flow.
Milbrandt showed superior experience and sufficient responses to Kaiser’s attacks to justify a conservative choice of sticking with the status quo.
I don’t get to cast a vote on June 5, and my vote on the May 9 debate is not a prediction of how any Brown County Republicans will vote. However, if the election were based on the things said at this forum, Milbrandt would win.