What’s it like to watch your reputation dismantled in a very public forum? I’m not referring to the #MeToo movement but to a moment in my own life in 2006, when I was campaigning for lieutenant governor.
During the last week of the campaign, I made several visits across Minnesota. One of the stops was in a coffee shop in Alexandria. I gave a speech to rally support for the campaign and then answered questions from a reporter from KSAX-TV, an affiliate of Hubbard Broadcasting. He asked about various policy positions of the campaign, then wanted to know, “What about E85?”
We were in a busy coffee shop and I didn’t hear him the first time, so I asked him to repeat the question. Initially, I thought he was asking about a local roadway — East 85? Local roadways are a big issue in greater Minnesota, and candidates often get asked about them. But that didn’t register, and I thought maybe it was an unfamiliar education acronym.
I drew a blank, then did the unthinkable — I said so. I made a joke about bombing out on the quiz bowl, and as I walked away, the reporter said he was referring to ethanol. Ahhh. Yes. I had been state auditor for eight years, and ethanol investments were a concern. My office had examined how several counties had used tax-increment financing to support ethanol operations. I had visited ethanol plants. I knew the financial impact of ethanol production throughout the state. But in that coffee shop, I blew it. The reporter and the camera had moved on, and we soon did, too, but not for long. Our opponents got the recording and pounced.
My two terms as state auditor, four years at the helm of a statewide charitable organization, my University of Minnesota law degree, my seven years as a prosecutor evaporated in days.
I was helpless to slow down, let alone stop, the swift dismantling of my public reputation by the members of the opposition, who questioned my intelligence and competence. The campaign didn’t handle the fallout well and, after a tumultuous week, we lost.
This all happened in 2006, more than a decade ago. I’ve never spoken about it publicly, and I thought I never would until last week, when another candidate failed to answer the E85 question. I decided I wanted to offer my perspective as a former candidate and, more important, as a Minnesotan who cares about good governance.
Politics can be bruising, and often it rewards dirty tricks and hyperbole. I have always believed in honest dialogue and discussion, and I value those who truly listen and try to answer questions with straightforward responses. Too often, candidates are overly scripted, their communications developed by consultants who provide them with bland, centrist messages meant to make everyone happy. How many times do we watch an interview and think, “Why don’t they answer the questions with a simple yes or no?!”
I believe we want elected officials who are honest, sincere and authentic, and I hope the sense of schadenfreude many feel when we see a politician stumble is somewhat muted by the understanding of the sacrifice many make to step forward to serve. It is often extremely difficult to campaign in a 24-hour “gotcha” environment when every word is parsed and every utterance evaluated. I encourage voters to look at candidates in full and understand that they are real people and that they sometimes make mistakes. If we want genuine, honest people in office, maybe we need to give them slack.
To err is human, to forgive? — TBD.
Judi Dutcher is executive director of the Bentson Foundation.