Both candidates for governor accomplished what they set out to do during their first debate on Thursday.
Democrat Diane Denish successfully appeared to be a strong defender of public schools and raised doubts about Republican Susana Martinez’s support for them. Speaking before hundreds of educators, Denish was convincing in trying to rally a crowd already friendly to her to actively help her win the race.
Martinez spoke to a more general audience with a message about school choice, accountability and protecting taxpayer dollars. In a year in which the pendulum is swinging to the right and people are concerned about the economy and believe the government is failing them, she was convincing in her harsh criticism of Denish and the status quo.
The different approaches were apparent in the way the candidates attacked each other. Denish spoke in the third person about Martinez to the audience of 400 people – many of them public school educators.
“My opponent – she’s not being straight with you. For months she has advocated a voucher program, taking public money out of public schools and putting it into private schools. Today she wants you to think it’s something else,” Denish told the audience. “…New Mexicans are tired of that double speak.”
Martinez, on the other hand, attacked Denish directly, looking right at her and speaking to her.
“Diane, you took office in 2003 and you said, ‘Hold me accountable for our graduation rates; hold me accountable, because we expect all children to read by the time they are in the third grade,’” Martinez said. “…I am holding you accountable, Diane. … You have failed our kids.”
Because she spoke directly to Denish, Martinez’s attacks appeared more vicious, but it was Denish who took the first shot during her opening statement. The back-and-forth sparring continued throughout the debate and colored it.
Martinez and vouchers
Denish repeatedly hit Martinez on the voucher issue. I’ve already reported that Martinez has moved away from the traditional vouchers she advocated during the primary. When Denish accused Martinez of lying for claiming that her plan wouldn’t take money from public education, I was surprised that Martinez didn’t simply explain why she’s moved away from her initial position.
Denish effectively used Martinez’s own words against her:
“So on the voucher issue, here’s Susana’s words: ‘The money should follow the child,’” Denish said. “…If you don’t remember that Susana, watch YouTube.”
That was something Martinez said at a forum during the primary. Martinez still supports vouchers for students with disabilities, but not for all other students. Instead, she’s proposing tax credits for people who donate to organizations that provide scholarships for poor children who want to attend a different school. Martinez, like Denish, now pledges not to cut funding for public education.
Why not just say she’s changed her mind and explain why? Instead, Martinez said this:
“You know Diane, you can say it over and over again and it’s not going to make it true. It’s not going to make it true,” Martinez said. “…I want private funding to be available to our children who are trapped in failing public schools.”
Denish and Richardson
Similarly, I was surprised that Denish didn’t try to distance herself from Gov. Bill Richardson when Martinez attacked the “failures” of the Richardson administration. Martinez said more than once that Denish was “at the front of the table chairing the Richardson/Denish reform” on education. She gave Denish credit for more influence and power than Denish actually had as lieutenant governor.
As I’ve reported on a separate issue, that’s in part because Denish has exaggerated her own importance over the years.
The attack was part of Martinez’s repeated efforts to tie Denish to the governor by pointing out statistics and claim that the reforms of the Richardson years have failed. Denish didn’t try to distance herself from Richardson at all. And when Martinez took a shot at Denish for her frequent use of the state jet to travel to the state’s rural communities, Denish defended it.
“You don’t have to fly an expensive jet to get there,” Martinez said. “Those are wasted dollars that our kids could be benefiting from.”
Denish’s response was that Martinez “might not think it’s important to visit those communities… but I believe it’s important.”
Style and substance
Neither candidate is a brilliant debater. On Thursday, Denish needed to address Martinez directly more and Martinez needed to address the audience more. Martinez’s direct attacks gave her the appearance of someone who’s passionate, but she needed to do more to engage the audience in that passion. Denish’s third-person attacks made her appear calm and cool, but I wanted to see more passion from her.
There’s a balance between the tactics the candidates took that would have been beneficial to both.
Martinez has improved dramatically since the primary, when her debate and forum appearances weren’t impressive. Though I think Denish had a slight advantage at the end of Thursday’s debate, Martinez showed that she can go toe-to-toe with the lieutenant governor.
In July, I wrote that Martinez’s plans and positions needed more substance. On education, she showed during the debate that she has ideas about how she would reform education and she can speak intelligently about them.
Denish, who has had years of practice in developing nuanced views on education issues, came across as very knowledgeable.
Denish had the better closing statement – dropping a bomb in pointing out that Martinez failed to vote in a school election in 2003. Denish said she appreciates Martinez’s “newfound” respect for funding public education, but said Martinez “didn’t care enough about education in September 2003 to go to the polls and vote.”
That’s one people will be talking about. And it’s one to which Martinez didn’t get to respond because Denish intentionally saved it for her final statement.
Martinez’s closing statement was one of the few times when she addressed the audience:
“If you’re satisfied with New Mexico being 49th in the nation in education – she’s right. Vote for Diane Denish,” Martinez said.
Then she went back to speaking directly to Denish.
“It’s immoral that we don’t have a higher achievement level for the hundreds of millions that have been spent,” Martinez said. “…Frankly Diane, you need a pink slip. We need a change.”