A Bad Night for Dennis O’Brien at No-Holds Barred Debate

The incumbent Councilman grew flustered as lesser-known opponents piled on. The audience heckling did not help.

So that’s why incumbents and heavy favorites prefer debates with lots of rules and regulations.

Tuesday evening, the Philadelphia Citizen and the Committee of 70 hosted an unorthodox debate featuring (some) of the candidates seeking two City Council at-large seats reserved for the non-majority party.

The rules were there were no rules. No moderator. No time limits on speaking. The candidates were free to ask whatever question they might desire of their opponents.

The results were … entertaining. Illuminating? Less so.

But it was a fascinating experiment. It was also a really bad night for GOP Councilman Dennis O’Brien. The two-term incumbent was heckled by the crowd and roughed up by three lesser-known opponents excited at their chance to punch up.

O’Brien did not handle it well. He ditched the stage at one point to lodge grievances over his maltreatment with debate organizers, then returned to the debate stage, then left again, citing other engagements.

Better, perhaps, to have made like GOP candidates David Oh and Al Taubenberger, who skipped out on the debate (which, to be fair, was scheduled rather late in the season, and at the request of GOP challenger Terry Tracy). Their absence was mocked on stage by a pair of stuffed chicken stand-ins perched on a stool (Republican candidate Dan Tinney, who also did not attend, apparently did not rate a chicken).

Some highlights? GOP candidate Tracy repeatedly thumping a microphone against his head, independent Andrew Stober’s suggestion that O’Brien and Oh have “been bought” by Democrats, and Democratic at-large nominee Allan Domb (there just for his own civic enlightenment, not as a participant) off-stage attempts to cool down the fired-up O’Brien.

So, Lincoln-Douglas this was not.

O’Brien was the first to speak. He told the audience straight off that he couldn’t stay long, then launched into a monologue touting his accomplishments and platform. It was all very standard stuff; the sort of thing Council candidates do a few times a night during election season, as they appear in front of one group, and then another, and then another.

But the audience — which seemed to be loaded with Tracy and Stober fans — grew restless quickly. There were catcalls and shouted questions from the crowd. Tracy, Stober and Staggs kept trying to interrupt O’Brien’s extended soliloquy.

O’Brien was not pleased, as this video taken by an attendee after O’Brien left the stage for the first time shows.

The incumbent Councilman returned to the stage, but the dynamic was much the same. Tracy declined to let O’Brien claim the floor for his own, questions were shouted, O’Brien’s answers were a little discombobulated and hard to hear over the hubbub, and well, it was all something of a circus.

Then O’Brien left, for the second time. And, poof, just like that, the debate turned civil and even moderately informative — which, let’s face it, is about the best that can be said of most debates, whatever the format.

The lack of a timer gave Green Party candidate Kristin Combs an opportunity to explain and explore the virtues of a land value tax. Stober had more than 30 seconds to talk about how city poverty policy might be improved by actually asking impoverished residents what the city should do to help them. Tracy questioned why Oh and O’Brien weren’t doing more to plead the city’s case to GOP leadership in Harrisburg, and said he’d do so if elected. And the candidates were pinned down on their positions on term limits (Combs and Socialist Party candidate John Staggs favor them, and Stober supports a three-term limit. Tracy says he opposed them to start the year, but has come to think, after 10 months of campaigning, that term limits might have their virtues.)

The candidates went pretty deep on some of these matters, and I’d like to have featured an exchange or two here verbatim. But I’m missing an audio recording I expected to have, and my notes just aren’t detailed enough to reconstruct the dialogue. Apologies on that.

Did the debate give any of the candidates a breakout moment? Not really. Tracy, Combs and Stober all did well, but since the event wasn’t televised — and media accounts of the exchange are going to be awfully limited — they were only able to make an impression on the crowd of 60 or so who turned out for the debate.

As for O’Brien? I doubt the reaction he got at this Center City event — packed with Stober supporters and reform-minded GOP malcontents — says much at all about his prospects in Tuesday’s election.