Over the past two Saturdays, six candidate forums moderated over Zoom covered several of the contested races that are on the ballot for local voters. Hour-long forums separately featured candidates running for the Northfield School Board, Northfield Mayor, Northfield City Council, Rice County Commissioner, Minnesota House of Representatives and the Minnesota Senate.
What is a candidate forum? It’s an event generally hosted by a community or political group in which candidates running for upcoming election are invited to discuss issues in a Q&A format. Questions come from moderators, panelists and members of the audience, and each candidate has an equal amount of time to respond to every question. The recent local forums, though entirely online, followed this typical format. They were hosted by the League of Women Voters of Northfield-Cannon Falls, a non-partisan organization that promotes political education and does not support or oppose political candidates. The forums were also sponsored by St. Olaf’s Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) program, Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) and the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce. Viewers were able to email in questions to be answered by the candidates in real time.
The candidates running for City Council discussed everything from the construction of a new roundabout, to the utilization of federal coronavirus relief funding, to the implementation of the Northfield Climate Action Plan.
Candidates for the Northfield School Board discussed, among other issues, priorities in the face of imminent budget cuts and their (unanimous) support for the antiracism goals articulated for the coming years by Matt Hillman, the Superintendent of Northfield Public Schools.
The two candidates for mayor talked about Northfield’s Strategic Plan, which has outlined six policy-making areas for the city to work on: economic development, infrastructure, affordable housing, operational effectiveness and climate, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion. They also discussed the value of adhering to Northfield’s Charter; for context, cities in Minnesota operate under either statutory city code or, like Northfield, a local charter.
As a first-time attendee to any sort of local candidate forum, I, a senior at Carleton, felt energized by not only this opportunity to directly pose questions to the candidates, but also the opportunity to really learn about local politics and policy from candidates’ discussions of the issues. This, to me, seemed like a small-scale example of functioning democracy.
The congeniality of the participating candidates also presented a welcome reprieve from the animosity and incivility that abounded in last week’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I would much rather have met all of you in public so I could shake your hand,” said Karen Jensen, a candidate for the Northfield School Board, in her closing statement.
“I am honored to sit with these engaged neighbors,” said Claudia Gonzales-George, another candidate for School Board. “I thank the other seven candidates for their willingness to serve,” said candidate Corey Butler.
School Board candidate Amy Goerwitz went one step further to advise voters in her own closing statement to vote for Gonzales-George, a Mexican-American woman who would bring some “much-needed” racial representation to the historically white school board.
In addition, all candidates clearly abided by the predetermined time limits for speaking. The forum moderator Martha Micks even had to comment, “You can finish your sentence,” to David Ludescher, one of the candidates for mayor, who stopped speaking mid-sentence when the signal for time-up flashed on the screen.
The candidates running for City Council unanimously closed on a message encouraging citizens to vote. “Thank you for voting. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain, so go out and vote,” said David Delong. George Zuccolotto added, “Take part in your democracy. Stop the democratic backsliding that’s happening, and remember what democracy is for.”