In defense of endorsements

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For the past few days, the paper has been filled with news stories and editorials about area candidates in Indiana’s May primary.

So we get to see photographs of people running for state legislature and county offices and learn a bit about them. The editorials endorse the paper’s preferences and give readers the reasons the editorial board picked one candidate over another.

Every election cycle takes me back to my more than a quarter century of interviewing the candidates, talking to people who know them, then arguing the pros and cons of each one with the publisher, editor and other editorial writers in order to arrive at the paper’s endorsements. Of course, I can’t forget actually writing many of those endorsements.

I always approached this part of my job with mixed feelings of dread and anticipation. I dreaded the time all this interviewing and writing took me away from what I thought of were the big issues of the day and my own interests. I dreaded knowing that we’d be interviewing people who didn’t know basic things about the position they sought or had such outrageous opinions I’d leave the candidate meetings angry and deeply disappointed. Or, I’d just be embarrassed for the person. Even smart, candidates who agreed with me could just be self-centered blowhards.

I suppose I had an infantile expectation that the candidate should be well-informed, thoughtful and a caring person who would look out for the little guy.

Despite my disappointments, I often found myself eager to meet a U.S. senator, governor or congressman, as well as certain candidates for mayor, county and city councils. As a rule, even those I disagreed with, and those the paper wasn’t going to support, could turn out to be quite interesting people. I think of former Indianpolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a very bright guy who was just fun to debate. And I could tell, he enjoyed himself too.

Former mayor and state Rep. Win Moses was always full of insights and frank talk, a joy to interview. That was also my experience interviewing former mayors Graham Richard and Paul Helmke. For all the years I was writing editorials, I thought
the city was lucky to have such capable leaders in the top job. I disagreed often with Bob Armstrong when he was mayor, then on the county council. Yet when he was mayor, he was surrounded by capable people in key departments. And I’ve often despaired of the overly cautious decisions of county government. We seemed to elect people whose passion wasn’t a better community. It was mainly to not spend any dollars. Not much vision there.

One major exception during my time at the paper was the late sheriff and, later, state senator Charles “Bud” Meeks. Yes, Bud was a conservative Republican. But he demanded his officers not jump into high-speed chases without the oversight of a command officer on dispatch. And in the state legislature, he strongly endorsed separating serious juvenile offenders from adults, not writing them off forever.
Local government has been the poorer without him.

I recall a lot of awkward moments during these interviews. One candidate for a county office got upset at the questions and started to get up to leave well before the interview was over. I believe Editor Craig Klugman talked him into sticking around for the rest of the interview. Needless to say, however, I’m sure we didn’t endorse the fellow nor was he elected.

I’ll never forget Mrs. Yingst whose husband Ned had been a business teacher for many years at South Side High School. The two of them were actually running for the same office. Go figure. But Mrs. Yingst was more interested in sharing her original recipe. As I recall, it was for a cake. Did she also bring homemade cookies to the interview? Seems like it. Somehow, all of us board members managed to keep a straight face. In another interview, it was somewhat startling to see a middle-age man from a rural community nearby wearing finger nail polish. Imagine my grandmother sporting a tattoo on her left bicep.

For many years, before my tenure, the paper declined to endorse candidates for public office. Back when I was reading the paper as a kid, I never saw endorsements. The argument to take a pass was simply, “Who are we to tell people how to vote?” Klugman challenged that thinking, whether it came from publishers or readers. He would point out that the editorial board was in a position to know the candidates much better than the typical voter and that the paper would try to offer an honest, impartial judgment. In fact, we owed the public nothing less, Klugman said. Indeed, we could play a useful role in the development of better government.

I think most candidates honestly sought the paper’s endorsement even if they hated our editorial stands. To be sure, an endorsement might not help them win the election. For those of us on the editorial board, it was a chance to argue for our positions and maybe advance our own cause.

I still marvel that so many people, including those who lack the qualifications, are willing to run for public office. It takes personal courage and a sincere commitment to put oneself out in such a manner. People can be so cynical about government. For sure, some political leaders give a person reason for that cynicism. But having interviewed and followed the careers of scores of politicians, local, state and national, I believe the vast majority are honest. I believe most truly want to serve. I believe most want to justify the faith the rest of us place in them. So I say hats off and three cheers for the colleagues at the paper I left behind to interview and write about the candidates. You’re serving your country. You’re serving your community. You’re serving all of us.

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