By Randy Arrington, publisher
The horrific, unsettling quagmire of the first presidential debate last week set a new low for such political platforms. As millions watched across the country and around the world, the lack of decorum and civility was dubbed by numerous commentators and political analysts across the globe as an “embarrassment” for the United States.
The viewing audience for Luray’s online candidate forum was much smaller on Thursday evening, but all seven candidates vying for a voice on town council showed genuine concern for both their constituency and for each other during the two-hour discussion. Residents of Luray should be proud that their current — and future — leaders shared sincere and substantive ideas for the future of our community.
We can remember past political forums in Page County in which 15 to 20 candidates (or more) would stand at the podium for a few minutes each and proclaim various promises and generalizations to cheers and jeers from the audience of 100 to 200 attendees. The forums were often packed with supporters for one candidate or another (usually a constitutional office candidate), and few who went to the fire hall or the VFW hall changed their minds when they left the building.
While they were sometimes entertaining, these previous events often left many asking the question: What good did that do?
While Thursday night’s Q&A with candidates for Luray’s town council may not change a lot of minds or alter the outcome of the election, it did set a new standard for such events in Page County. From the quality of the online production facilitated by Charles King (viewed by more than 800 live and many more after the recording was posted) to the actual substance of the responses by participants, the forum provided a valuable and informative exchange of ideas about key issues that will affect the daily lives of many Luray residents for years to come.
And then there was the moderator.
Can a moderator win a debate? That certainly wouldn’t have been the case for Fox News’ Chris Wallace last week in Cleveland — although we acknowledge that he did his best given the circumstances — but one of the most memorable voices from Thursday night’s political forum in Luray was that of moderator Alex White.
Currently a sophomore at Harvard University, White showed maturity beyond his years by asking relevant and probing questions (including follow-ups), maintaining order and decorum, staying on schedule, keeping the listening audience aware of what topic was being discussed, and even fielding a question himself off the cuff and responding in a well thought out and genuine manner.
White’s comments to the viewing audience at the conclusion of the two-hour discussion put the evening in a timely perspective and reminded everyone that all politics are local.
“This is important,” White said as as he looked directly into the camera. “You’re going to get all fired up about 2020… we all are, but really… this is going to make an impact on your life.”
The two candidates for mayor and five candidates vying for three seats on the town council discussed issues such as affordable housing, economic development, filling empty downtown storefronts, luring young people back to Luray, taking care of senior citizens and race relations, as well as touting their own accomplishments and qualifications. These topics and others that were discussed carry even more weight when one considers the fact that four of the seven seats on the Luray Council could potentially be filled by new members in January.
In past candidate forums, we have seen some speakers who decided to put their name on the ballot without fully familiarizing themselves with the issues. Some folks made gaffs (or outright fools) of themselves through a lack of preparation, experience or general knowledge about the key issues at hand. On Thursday night, there was an unusually high amount of substance and a genuine nature about the candidates that is typically lacking in political debates, especially at the local level.
We agree with the moderator when he stated, “I think we’ve got a really good crop of people all around that are going to take care of us regardless of how it goes.”
From a constituent standpoint, that’s a good place to be in — and considering how hard it is to find qualified candidates willing to serve in public office (just look at surrounding localities as an example), Luray voters are fortunate to have some good options on the ballot.
We are not going to critique the candidates, noting who we thought did well or who did poorly. That’s for the voters to decide. In our opinion, the mere fact that all seven candidates showed up and actually contributed something of substance makes the event not only a success, but it sets a tone and a benchmark for similar events that will follow in our community.
The vast majority of credit for making that happen goes to Living Legacy Luray and the folks at the West Luray Rec Center. We challenge Luray residents to name one single location in town that has served as more of a touchstone for community events and as a beacon for bringing people together than the Rec Center has been over the past four months.
The formerly vacant and rundown 1928 “Rosenwald school” for black students in Page County has quickly become a gathering place for so many activities, from peaceful protests over racial equality to study sessions and tutoring for local youth. The turnaround has been dramatic, and hosting Thursday night’s forum has now expanded the “dream” that Audre King had just a few years ago.
What viewers saw (and will see) from the video of Thursday night’s candidate forum — is the real Luray. It was exponentially more illustrative of who we are as a town and a community than that one-sentence meme shared on Facebook in August. We hope that the world that was so quick to condemn an entire town over one Facebook post will be as quick to applaud it for the Facebook Live recording that shows some of our best qualities.
In closing, we ask that everyone exercise their right to vote — in one form or another — in order to preserve our representative democracy. The greatest enemy to our form of government and our way of life is apathy. Democracy, much like our muscles, doesn’t work well unless we exercise it.
So please, participate in the process.