Yesterday -- a week before the special-election primary -- the South End News ran a story alleging that state rep. Marty Walz "may have shared questions prepared for a 3rd Suffolk District candidate debate
with candidate Aaron Michlewitz in advance of" a recent candidates debate. So, is this a scandal? Should it be?
Here's what happened, as best as I can tell from people I spoke with, including Robert Whitney, who chairs the Ward 5 Democratic Commitee that co-hosted the debate -- and who moderated the debate. (Walz did not return my call on this.)
Whitney, as is his usual routine, wrote up a list of potential questions a couple of days before the April 21 debate, and circulated the list among at least six or seven people for suggestions. That included the executive board of the committee, which includes Walz; it also included at least one person from Ward 4, and others. Several of them sent back suggestions, which resulted in Whitney creating a new list of 12 questions, which he also sent around.
Apparently, Walz -- who is openly and aggressively supporting Michelwitz -- forwarded both emails, with the questions, to Michelwitz. And, apparently, somebody managed to leak that to The South End News.
Whitney does not feel that anything horrendous occurred here, and that the South End News made too much of it. He says that the list of questions was not exactly a state secret; that having the list was no great advantage, because the questions were all pretty generic, predictable topics; that it's no secret or surprise that members of the Ward Committee are often supporting one or another candidate, and nobody has ever suggested that anyone be kept out of the loop about debates because of that; and that the list Michelwitz allegedly received was not final anyway, and changed right up to the day of the debate.
Walz did not speak to the South End News about it. Michelwitz, queried by the News, did not deny (or explicitly confirm) receiving the lists, instead issuing a statement complaining about the leaking of the emails:
" Whether candidates review questions in advance of forums is really not the issue
here - this is about my privacy and an attempt by someone to take the focus off
of the issues - which is hardly the politics of change."
So, my take on all this?
1) It's a legitimate story that Walz sent the list to Michelwitz. I don't doubt at all that this kind of thing (and worse) happens all the time, but I think many people would be surprised to find out that it does, and that makes it newsworthy.
2) It doesn't seem as though Michelwitz himself necessarily did anything wrong; all we know is that a supporter sent him some quasi-inside info. Also, I don't think it gave Michelwitz any actual advantage.
3) I think it looks bad for Michelwitz, precisely because he is portrayed, fairly or not, as the machine candidate, for whom the people in power are pulling levers to get him elected. And this looks like one of those people got caught in the act doing exactly that.
4) I also think that Michelwitz's response looks bad. The leak of the emails to South End News is an issue, but that doesn't mean the forwarding of the emails to Michelwitz is not an issue.
5) I think that Walz, Whitney, and many other political activists around the city -- and by the way I like both Walz and Whitney -- are so accustomed to how things actually work in this city, that they don't realize how it all may look from the outside. I mean, of course ward committee members, among others, try to tilt things to their candidates' advantage, in a million and one ways, all the time. The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that perhaps ward committees need to have some discussion about what is and is not acceptable behavior when the committee is playing a role in an election where they wish to be seen as fair and impartial.
Please, give me your own thoughts!