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The Democratic Debate: Killing Us Softly

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When I tuned in to Monday’s debate between the two main Democratic primary candidates for governor—Bill White and Farouk Shami—I wasn’t expecting fireworks or Lincoln-Douglas or even Perry-Hutchison-Medina.

But, good lord, I didn’t think it would quite that dull.

In the Austin area, the debate preempted PBS’ airing of the quiet, quaint Antiques Roadshow. Television doesn’t get much sleepier than that, but damn if White-Shami didn’t make Antiques Roadshow look like 24.

Their hour-long discussion barely qualified as a debate. There was no back and forth. In fact, the candidates barely disagreed on anything. After an hour of talk, I counted three disagreements: raising the gas tax (Shami says yes, White no); moratorium on the death penalty (Shami yes, White no) and moratorium on drilling for natural gas in the Barnett Shale (again, Shami yes, White no). In fact, one of the tidbits we learned about Bill White is that he doesn’t like across-the-board moratoriums of any sort.

Instead of actual debate, we watched two men stand awkwardly behind podiums and dutifully talk about various public-policy issues for an hour. Or, in Shami’s case, talk mostly about ideas. The hair products magnate skipped through his answers, bounding from one generalization to the next and providing scant details for his ideas despite repeated attempts by the questioners to nail him down. (At one point, Shelley Kofler, of KERA in Dallas, got a tad condescending while quizzing Shami on his plans for the budget, “You understand that you wouldn’t introduce the budget bill, right?”) Still, Shami offered little more than a pledge to balance the budget in his first year, which isn’t much of a pledge since the state is constitutionally required to balance its budget every year. But I digress.

As for Bill White, he was, well, Bill White: Steady, articulate, obviously more informed on state issues than any of the questioners, ernest, wonkish and utterly lacking in charisma.

The two best lines of the night—perhaps the only lines of the night—came from Shami. He responded to the obligatory question about “securing the border” (for the last time: it’s a federal issue!) by saying, “Without Mexicans it would be like a day without sunshine in our state.”

Another nice one came in his last answer, when Shami said that after Americans elected Barack Obama, “This state is ready for a brown governor named Farouk Shami.”

I also liked White’s response to a question about how a Democrat could possibly win the governorship after a 20-year losing streak: “The New Orleans Saints had never won a Super Bowl since expansion, and at the beginning of the season, no one thought they would do it.” That was good. I will note, however, that it took the Saints more than 40 years to win the big one. Texas Democrats are hoping they’re not wandering the desert that long.

To say the candidates have vastly different styles is an understatement. That came through in their exchange over electricity prices. Both endorsed a rollback of electricity deregulation (one of the many, many things they agreed on). Shami talked of fantastical ideas, like a 10-year goal of increasing renewable energy to the point that Texans wouldn’t pay electricity bills, but would instead sell power back to the grid and make money.

White, by contrast, talked of small sensible programs such as weatherizing homes, putting solar panels on public buildings and increasing natural gas production. He said renewable energy has its place, but he wouldn’t want to rely on it during a summer heat wave.

Meanwhile, the questioners didn’t distinguish themselves. White dispatched a nonsensical question from Kofler about whether he would allow Texas to participate in national health reform. He noted that, based on the bills currently in Congress, we won’t have a choice. I also give White credit for being honest during a question on the economy. He was asked by a single mother in the audience what he would do to help her find a job. White stressed the need to improve job training. When he was pressed by moderator Karen Borta about how he would solve the recession, White refused to make empty promises. “I do not think the governor of Texas has control over the global economy.” But, he said, the governor can ensure that Texas workers are well trained.

In the end, this felt like a practice debate—the political equivalent of a spring-training game. Few pundits think White will lose the primary. So, unlike the GOP debates of recent weeks, there was little at stake on Monday night, and the debate lacked any tension.

Rather, those who tuned in probably wanted to take a measure of White, the likely Democratic nominee. In that sense, White was the political winner on Monday. He made no major gaffes. He stayed above the fray, refusing the criticize his underdog opponent on anything. (Shami took some swipes at White, but nothing that stuck.)

The viewers who watched the whole hour—and God bless those who did—saw a man with a deep understanding of the policy issues in this state. They saw a man who could sure use a charisma transplant, but who also looked calm and thoughtful. On this night, that was good enough. Riveting, though, it wasn’t.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.