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Kelly Merritt: The view from the election front row seat

Having a front row seat to watch any competitive event is always fun.

For four years, I had the opportunity to be the public address announcer for West Virginia State University men’s and women’s basketball games.

Sitting at the scorer’s table so close to the action allowed me to witness every movement on the court, hear the players and coaches comments to one another, listen to the referees, see the struggle and the effort in the competitors’ faces, hear their breath as they competed, feel their footsteps as they ran down the court.

This year, for the first time, I got to sit on the front row of another competitive event – albeit of a different sport. As editorial page editor of the Charleston Daily Mail and a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, I got to meet with nearly every candidate in selected races that the Daily Mail chose to cover in Kanawha and Putnam counties.

Like my life-time following of football, I’ve always been a spectator of political competition. I don’t live and breathe politics as some candidates and too many political consultants seem to do. I’ve watched closely, know some people in political office, read the stats, so to speak, in the daily paper, but I never had that front row seat in the election process until this year.

It was an education and a great experience.

The Daily Mail editorial board decided to interview candidates in 17 races, the County Commission and School Board in Kanawha and Putnam counties, as well as several House of Delegates races, a state Senate race, the U.S. Senate race and the U.S. House of Representatives race for District 2.

The good news I can report is there are a lot of highly qualified, intelligent, authentic, dedicated and caring people out there who run for office for legitimate reasons.

Of all the people we met, I felt comfortable with nearly all of them. Although I didn’t necessarily agree with all of them politically, there were very few that I would not have been comfortable with as a quality public servant.

That took me back 31 years ago, as a third-year journalism student at Marshall University, I worked as communications intern with the West Virginia Legislature’s Office of Public Information. I worked closely with legislators in that job and I decided then that when deciding whom to vote for, a person’s integrity and work ethic should be my number one concern, with their political philosophy second.

So, other than just a few candidates that I was really uncomfortable with, it seemed the integrity and work ethic of nearly all of them was worthy of their service.

So thank you to the candidates who are taking their time and energy (or took the time and energy for those who didn’t make it past Tuesday’s election), and in many cases own money, to run to represent us. I truly believe most, particularly at the local level, are running with the idea of serving the community.

But it wasn’t all lollipops and ice cream. Part of my job is deciding what opinion pieces go on the editorial page. The Daily Mail will run what we call “op-eds” from candidates – or anyone who can write an interesting, coherent column about a topical issue.

We received an op-ed from “Candidate A” – and were happy to run it. The day it appeared in print, a staff member from “Candidate B” called me urgently to say “We’ve got to have the opportunity to respond.” “Respond to what?,” I asked. “[Candidate A] didn’t even mention your candidate in the column,” I said, reminding the spokesperson of that the big word OPINION at the top of every editorial page.

Still, I welcomed an op-ed from Candidate B, and against my better judgment, left in an attack on Candidate A in Candidate B’s column.

Of course, that brought a phone call from Candidate’s A’s office on the day of print, who demanded to be able to respond to Candidate B’s attack. I felt obligated that the Daily Mail allow some response, although we ran just a smidgen of Candidate A’s response (most of which was a round of new attacks on Candidate B). I decided then I wouldn’t let the editorial page degrade into a series of columns from each candidate attacking the other, and told Candidate A’s spokesperson that.

“Okay, but our political consultant is upset,” the spokesperson said. I didn’t respond what I was thinking, but I couldn’t care less how any candidate’s political consultant felt. I think candidates relying too much on consultants threatens true representative government. I’m more concerned about our readers, who I believe want positive community discourse on the issues.

So that’s a wrap of my front row seat for Round 1. Please stay tuned and keep reading as Round 2 of the 2014 election takes shape.

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