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Commentary: Tune in to Illinois gubernatorial debates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2010 - Consider the civic engagement of our forefathers as you contemplate whether to tune in - at a time of your choosing, in the comfort of your home - to debates featuring men who want to govern our state during the next four years.

Illinoisans by the thousands braved sweltering August heat and nipping October winds as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas vied. Most stood throughout their three-hour duels. Many cheered and jeered. Others simply watched and listened. They all thrust themselves into the 1858 battle for a U.S. Senate seat.

No contemporary issue even remotely approximates slavery in moral magnitude and combustibility. But the challenges that confront the mere mortal we elect Nov. 2 as chief executive of this deficit-devastated, recession-ravaged and scandal-scarred state eclipse or rival those faced by any predecessor. Together with our profound responsibilities as citizens of the land of Lincoln, they compel our earnest attention.

Gov. Patrick Quinn, a Democrat, and state Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican nominee, have agreed to spar in debates that millions of Illinoisans can view and hear without standing or sweating or shivering. Among them:

  • A clash Wednesday morning at a public event hosted by Chicago's Union League Club that will be recorded by the Illinois Channel , televised on cable systems that span Illinois and posted on its Internet venue.
  • A Chicago Tribune editorial board session Thursday with all five gubernatorial candidates that it will spotlight on its website.
  • An Oct. 14 faceoff in Carbondale that will air on public television stations and perhaps some commercial outlets and should be readily available online.
  • An Oct. 20 skirmish co-sponsored by WLS-TV in Chicago and the League of Women Voters that also should be widely accessible on the tube and the web.

Check your local TV listings and look for announcements elsewhere. Peruse the Internet. But temper your expectations.
Advisers to Brady and Quinn will tell them to reduce their risk and manage their message. Repeat campaign mantras. Seize opportunities to deliver prepackaged zingers. Don't smirk or frown. Look into the camera and don't blink too often. Yet, as questioners persist in piercing the panoply, we will discern differences in philosophy, demeanor and grasp of the issues that provide considerably more insight than we receive in the 30-second TV spots that sway too many Illinoisans.

Those disgusted with both Democrats and Republicans will chafe over the exclusion of the Green Party's Rich Whitney, Libertarian Lex Green and independent Scott Lee Cohen from some or most of the debates. But the appeal of a "neither of the above" contender will fade for many as they learn more about the alternatives.

Whitney deserves credit for proposing a straight-forward plan to address our fiscal chaos, but it strays from the mainstream with its big-government, bash business slant. Green veers sharply the other way. Meanwhile, the cunning Cohen tries to fool voters twice in nine months. He wants us to look past the steroid use and the allegations of domestic abuse that cost him the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and envision a successful pawnbroker steering our state out of debt, even though he admits he knows next to nothing about state finances and shows little desire to learn much more before November.

So, even those of us who grieve over the choice between Brady and Quinn must recognize that almost certainly one of them will prevail, and this is hardly a juncture to indulge in protest votes or go to the polls not fully informed. We need to tune in if we plan to turn out.

Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. He writes a twice-monthly column.