Here's the big secret about this "exciting" mayoral debate sponsored by the Northern California Service League (NCSL): There isn't enough biker speed in Modesto to keep this crowd awake tonight. You might as well pump in some Windham Hill music and roll out videos of serene ocean beaches. We are destined to curl up in our stocking feet and pant ourselves to sleep like bunnies in a hutch, because, frankly, it's fucking boring.
Perhaps it's tonight's format: Candidates sit on a panel and pass a mike among them, answering questions about crime and criminal justice issues in two minutes or less. There are no questions from the audience, nor debate amongst each other. Each panelist merely regurgitates his answers as bite-size Pez pellets, another answer pellet coming up the windpipe at the ready. There is no backbiting, no personal vitriol, no political passion whatsoever. Nothing except a room packed with panting rabbits.
The heat is unbearable. Gals fan themselves like they're in a Baptist church in Mississippi. Men have removed their jackets. The windows are open -- as is the bar -- but the drinks aren't fooling anyone.
NCSL President Joseph Satten introduces the evening, and reads off the names of the board of directors. Out of perhaps 150 people, eight clap. The mike starts to buzz. City public defender Jeff Brown has a Sisyphean task as moderator. This will be the longest two hours of our lives.
The candidates sip water, hunched over microphones on a dais. All of you know the drill: Achtenberg is informed yet extremely dull, elongating words like "con-sol-i-da-tion" as if scolding a third-grader. Alioto is a screeching Mother Teresa, except that to her credit, she seems more lucid than usual this evening. Brown speaks in the calm condescension of a New York Times editorial, slyly positioning himself as the voice of reason among the rabid and insane. Businessman Ben Hom reads from hastily scribbled notes. Mayor Jordan whistles through his consonants with little personality. And airport bureaucrat Joel Ventresca is optimistic to the point of Prozac. Also, his haircut seems lopsided, like he just woke up from a nap.
Everybody got a pillow? Crank up the Windham Hill, and we're off.
Alioto insists that "youth should be put on the front burner!" Nice Jeffrey Dahmer metaphor. Jordan parries with a startling admission: "Education has to be dealt with."
Topics roll past: mental illness, substance abuse, and overcrowded jails. Should the San Bruno facility be upgraded? Ever the tactician, Brown asks to have the question repeated, then repeats it himself. He stabs his finger on the table with emphasis: "We spend too much money to put people in jail!" Who's to argue?
Hom wipes his forehead and ears with a handkerchief, and says what sounds like, "We cannot squeeze plum out of a tomato." Call it Hom's Home Canning Corollary. During this philosophical drone, a reporter walks by and shows me a note which reads "Dentist Drill."
Jordan reiterates his position: "If you'll look at the real record ..." Which is about all he can say, since he's the incumbent. Ventresca's Prozac is kicking in for real now, as he boldly states: "I am committed to finding funds."
Achtenberg softly lulls the rabbits back to REM state by announcing she would like to see police as "advance students of conflict resolution." We're back to Hom, who is sweating buckets compared to the rest. Again, he wipes his forehead and ears -- particularly the hair behind the ears.
"More beat officers," he says confidently. "Not stay and answer the phone calls." Twelve to 15 people suddenly stand up and leave. It is a signal from the heavens.
People now begin leaving in twos and fours. Mouths are yawning, watches are beeping. One guy shuts his eyes for several seconds, then opens them wide. The time is 7 p.m.
The city's reporters all share a world-weary expression. News photographers are yawning -- more action shots of goofballs at microphones. The process of politics browbeats everyone down to its own level of exasperation. It's not about power or connections. Whoever sits through all the bullshit without jabbing a hypo into his thigh will rule the roost. It's only a matter of time before one of us bursts into tears and leaps screaming from the window.
Brown attempts to liven things up by ad-libbing that he wants Colin Powell to run the Police Department. Achtenberg grabs Alioto by the throat and smacks her head into the table. Brown strips to his skivvies and strikes a daring pose. Hom kicks Jordan in the stomach. Ventresca runs to the big Press Club logo banner of a black cat and draws a penis on it.
A janitor shakes me awake. The room is littered with rabbit pellets.
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By Jack Boulware