By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
With so much attention focused on the presidential campaign, California voters had a rare opportunity to hear about another important election on Oct. 5 when the two candidates for U.S. Senate, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, debated at Cal State L.A.
Janis Hirohama, former president of the League of Women Voters of California and former first vice president of LWV of the United States, is well aware of the significance of the race to replace Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring. Along with Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, and ABC7 news reporter Adrienne Alpert, Hirohama served as a panelist for the debate, which was moderated by ABC7 news anchor Marc Brown.
“First, it was the only scheduled debate between these candidates who are vying for the first open U.S. Senate seat in California in 24 years. That is longer than the lifetimes of some of those who will be voting!” she said. “This was the only chance for voters to compare the candidates for this major office through the vehicle of a face-to-face debate.
“Second, this is the highest-profile race since the implementation of the ‘top-two’ primary system in California, and it ended up being a Democrat-vs.-Democrat match-up. This was an important opportunity for Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez to draw distinctions between themselves.
“Finally, this is an election between two candidates who are not only women, but women of color. It says a lot about changes in the political landscape in California that we are seeing a contest for a U.S. Senate seat between a woman of black and Asian ancestry [Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican American father and an Indian mother] and a Latina who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.”
As a panelist and a League of Women Voters representative, Hirohama can’t publicly state her opinion on who won or lost, but she noted that the debate was quite lively. “Some pundits have called this race a ‘snoozer.’ But I think the Harris-Sanchez debate was far from dull. That’s one of the great things about a debate. When you have two candidates go head-to-head, you have real, live human beings interacting. That adds an element of unpredictability, and you can also get a read on the personality, temperament, even the sense of humor of each candidate.
“In this situation, where this was the only debate and Harris held a commanding lead in the polls going in, this was Sanchez’s last and best chance to make herself known to the voters, to try to rough up her opponent, and to make a compelling case for herself. That’s an inherently dramatic situation and I think we saw some of that play out in unexpected ways in this debate. I certainly didn’t envy moderator Marc Brown that evening.”
She added, “It was gratifying as an Asian American to play a part in this debate. We are witnessing the changing demographics of California and the evolving face of the electorate, both in this state and nationally. In this presidential election year, API voters have been identified as a potential swing voter group in states ranging from Nevada to Virginia. I think it’s crucial that APIs be engaged in the political process, that we express our concerns, and that our voices be heard. Visibility and representation are important, so I think that seeing people involved in the political process who reflect our community — whether as voters or candidates or even debate panelists — is meaningful.”
Hirohama was pleased to see CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano, a 42-year-old Filipino American, as moderator of the only vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence on Oct. 4. “She was the first Asian American and youngest person moderator of a national debate, so it’s great to see that diversity represented. But at the end of the day she is a journalist doing her job and should be judged on that basis.”
The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers noted that even Quijano’s fellow journalists were divided on her performance as they live-tweeted the debate. “The split reviews for Quijano once again underscore the impossible task of pleasing everyone as a debate moderator,” he wrote. “No matter what, you’re bound to take heat for being too passive or too intrusive, for taking too many detours or clinging too tightly to scripted questions.”
A member of the State Bar of California’s Commission on Access to Justice and equal rights director for the League of Women Voters of California, Hirohama served as president of the LWV of California for two two-year terms, from 2007 to 2011. In that capacity, she moderated two televised debates between candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. Before becoming president, she moderated debates in city council and school board races.
“I’ve also interviewed statewide candidates for the California Channel, in which candidates are asked questions in one-on-one interviews which are taped and aired later,” she said. “I enjoy that format because it’s a more relaxed format and you have the opportunity to build a rapport with the candidates.”
Speaking from experience, Hirohama said, “When you are a moderator, it is a high-stress situation. All eyes are on you. It can be nerve-wracking, particularly when it’s a televised debate, and even more so when it’s live. You need to keep multiple balls in the air — managing the time, keeping control of the candidates, including enforcing time limits and making sure things remain civil, and making sure the candidates are treated equally.
“In some debates I’ve moderated, the moderator is responsible not just for asking the questions, but for selecting them from questions submitted by the audience during the debate. Often for a live televised debate you have an earpiece over which you are getting technical cues or instructions from a director or camera operator, which is yet another thing you have to deal with as a moderator. So you’re doing all these things while trying to appear calm, focused, fair, and personable.
“So, being one of the three panelists for the Harris-Sanchez debate was certainly easier for me than being a sole moderator. But on the other hand, this was a high-profile debate, so you do feel some pressure.”
Without commenting on which candidates did better in the Trump-Clinton and Kaine-Pence debates, Hirohama observed that they “very much reflected the contentious nature of the election and the high degree of political and cultural polarization in our country right now. It was not a pleasant spectacle. The candidates seem entrenched in their positions, and you don’t see genuine dialogue taking place.
“Thanks in part to the 24/7 news cycle and the rise of social media, the debates are treated as a form of entertainment or a sporting event, with the focus on sound bites, spin, and a scorecard approach to anoint a winner and a loser. So what we got was almost a kind of reality show, complete with insults, talking over each other, and misrepresentations. You have to question whether those debates provided the voters with any useful information whatsoever about the candidates and their positions on the issues.
“However, I do think it is a positive that moderators are taking a more active role than in the past in fact-checking, asking follow-up questions, and pressing the candidates for answers. That helps hold the candidates accountable and draws out more information for the viewers.”
Whatever the shortcomings of national debates, Hirohama believes that debates for state and local races “can present a better opportunity for the voters to actually get information that will help them make a choice on who to vote for. So I think it’s important that candidates participate in them.
“In the League of Women Voters, we’ve seen an increasing tendency for incumbents and/or those who hold substantial leads in polls to decline to participate in debates. They think there is no up side for them — that it is a potential opportunity to make a mistake and just gives visibility to their opponent. But I think that shortchanges the voters. Voters should have opportunities to see the candidates and judge for themselves.
“I’ve met people whose opinions have been changed after seeing a debate, and that has happened to me, too. So I think this U.S. Senate debate was a valuable opportunity for the voters to learn more about these candidates.”
To see a video of the debate, go online to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-Ld4FJTra0