In August and again in November, Floridians will go to the polls to choose public servants for offices from school board and county commission to Governor and the United States Congress.
In the next few weeks, this newspaper (and most of the others around the state) will begin making its recommendations. (Some newspapers choose the term “endorsements;” we are more comfortable with “recommendations.”)
A newspaper’s recommendations are not an effort “to tell people how to vote,” as newspaper critics (yes, there really are such people) are quick to charge. They are simply, well, recommendations.
Why do we choose to make them? Because we feel it is a function of community leadership, which we view as a major responsibility of the press.
Why do we think our recommendations have merit? Because in a county of hundreds of thousands of people (around 600,000 in Polk) newspapers have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes to a hour talking to each candidate who chooses to be interviewed by our editorial board. That is an opportunity that few citizens have.
We invite every candidate in local races to visit our editorial board for an interview. It is an invitation, not a summons. Most accept the invitation. If a candidate chooses not to pay us a visit, we make our judgment based on what we can find out, generally from the candidate’s campaign.
Who makes up the editorial board? On the smallest newspapers, the “board” typically is the editor and publisher, both titles being held by the same person. On large papers, the process may be a sophisticated one with a board made up of journalists who do nothing but write editorials.
At our newspapers, which come between those two extremes in size, the process is an informal one. The editorial board typically is made up of the publisher and a small number of editors, generally three or more folks. Reporters often are invited to sit in to cover the candidates’ remarks for a story.
The board invites the candidates to discuss their interests, qualifications, and platforms, and may ask their positions on important political issues of the day. We are more impressed by candidates who seem to have a grasp of the issues and a willingness to speak candidly than by ones who try figure out what answers they think we want to hear.
What if the editorial board members cannot agree? Frankly, it almost never happens. After a thorough and sometimes robust discussion, the board generally arrives at consensus. If it doesn’t, the boss makes the final call, either selecting the candidate or deciding not to make a recommendation in that race.
Judicial races probably are the toughest calls, because canons of judicial conduct don’t allow a candidate to say much more than that he or she will be fair and impartial. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard a judicial candidate campaign on a platform of being unfair and biased.
We often make discreet inquiry in the legal community to get a feel for the reputations and merits of judicial candidates.
One issue we examine carefully in judicial races is judicial demeanor. The late Jack Edmund, one of the finest trial lawyers in Polk County history, once told us that an arrogant lawyer will become a super arrogant judge; even a courteous lawyer can develop a great sense of his own importance.
Lawyers call it “robe-itis,” an affliction that can be developed by a lawyer after he dons a black robe. We discuss it candidly with each candidate. Some have asked us to call their hand if we see them developing robe-itis. A time or two we have done so.
Our recommendations are based on the candidates we believe will do the best jobs. We do not try to guess who is the most popular candidate in our community and then recommend him or her. That is not what editorial leadership is about.
Newspaper editorial boards are not the only folks making recommendations.
Other organizations engage in a similar process. Some are truly interested in good government; others seek to choose a candidate they figure will do their bidding.
One of the strongest endorsements candidates can receive is to have supporters post their campaign signs in their yards.
Signs placed in vacant lots or along the side of the road are meaningless; signs placed in supporters’ yards make a strong statement. They are another excellent recommendation for voters choosing for whom to vote.
The political recommendation process: it’s coming soon to a newspaper editorial page or a front yard near you.