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Debate gave closer look at personalities 

During yesterday’s mayoral debate on WROC-TV, challengers James Sheppard and Rachel Barnhart did their best to inflict serious damage on incumbent Lovely Warren. But whether you were undecided or were just leaning toward one of the three, it’s unlikely that the debate did much to sway your decision.
click to enlarge Democratic primary is on Tuesday, September 12. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Democratic primary is on Tuesday, September 12.

For one thing, none of the three are complete unknowns to most city voters, and their positions on the issues have been well-reported. What a live televised debate does offer, though, is a closer look at personalities, presence, and the special quality that many successful politicians have in common: charisma. The latter is all about a politician’s likeability as a person. Without at least some of that, connecting with voters is difficult.

In that respect, all three were able to come off well in yesterday’s debate. For instance, in a response to a question about the opioid crisis, Barnhart said she would consider a city program letting addicts continue to get their drugs under supervision. It’s an approach that’s been taken by other cities dealing with drug epidemics, and while it’s notably progressive, it’s also controversial. Barnhart said her first priority is to save lives.

Warren countered with a heartfelt objection to the idea, insisting that it doesn’t work, and saying she’s witnessed the suffering that drug abuse has caused to individuals in her own family. She was compassionate and convincing.

At another point in the debate, Barnhart challenged Sheppard’s record as Rochester’s police chief, charging that he failed to discipline police officers when they acted inappropriately. But Sheppard talked about how he regularly visited the scenes of city homicides and met privately with the families of those who were killed. Sheppard spoke from the gut. Many of the deceased were men who looked like him, he said. Neither of the other two candidates had had that experience, and neither could talk personally about what it’s like to be a police officer in those circumstances.

Yet it’s hard to know how deeply Sheppard’s response resonated with many viewers, because of the news involving police use of force in the past several years.

In a race with three candidates hoping to lead a city with multiple challenges, an hour isn’t very long for a televised debate. But all three were able to outline their specific stands on key issues and to challenge their opponents.

Probably the tensest moment in the debate had to do with Warren’s alleged campaign finance infractions. Both Sheppard and Barnhart pressed Warren on the issue. Warren has had to return more than $20,000 to donors in excessive campaign contributions. Another $30,000 from a political action committee, Friends of Lovely Warren, has also been questioned.

Warren, who had lost her temper about the issue earlier in the campaign during an interview on WXXI’s Connections program, did her best to keep her cool during yesterday’s debate, essentially calling the campaign problems an accounting error that has been corrected. Barnhart would have none of it, and accused Warren of committing felonies. It’s an aggressive line of attack that Barnhart has used before, but we won’t k now until the election whether voters view it with the same level of seriousness that Barnhart does.

Did we learn anything new from the debate? Not really; each of these candidates is personable and passionate. There were no knockout punches. The question is whether viewers thought all three were able to go into battle without seeming so combative that they didn’t seem likable. With the September 12 primary just days away, voters watching the debate probably felt that Warren was able to defend her record. But Sheppard and Barnhart probably didn’t disappoint their supporters, either.

Now it’s up to the voters.

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