Who’s ready to do their civic duty? Philly’s primary election is Tuesday, but there’s still plenty of time to figure out how you want to vote. The outcome of the races could have major impacts on the biggest issues in the city, including crime, the opioid crisis, education, the soda tax, and so much more. It’s your time to be heard. Plus, we chat with opinion writer Abraham Gutman on how and why the Inquirer Editorial Board endorses candidates.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with opinion writer and Inquirer Editorial Board member Abraham Gutman on how the Board operated separately from the newsroom to endorse ballot question positions and candidates for mayor, council, sheriff, and city commissioner ahead of Tuesday’s election.
What is your role on the Inquirer Editorial Board? And how is the Editorial Board different from the rest of the newsroom?
I am a staff writer in the Opinion Department, which includes the Editorial Board.
The Editorial Board is a group of writers and editors who are tasked with defining the institutional position of PMN. The Board operates separately from newsroom, which means that while we talk often with our news colleagues, we are editorially independent. (That means that reporters and news editors don't get to weigh in on what's written in an editorial and the Editorial Board doesn't get a say in what kinds of news stories are written.)
The Editorial Board writes six editorials a week, which are 500-word opinion pieces that represent the consensus opinion of the Editorial Board. During election season, we also write endorsements.
I write both signed opinion pieces (my own opinion) and unsigned editorials (the Board’s opinion). My reporting process is exactly the same as any news article. I conduct interviews, make phone calls, go out to events, and research the issues. But once the reporting and writing is done, an editorial or opinion piece has to be both defensible on the facts reported and on the merit of the analysis and the conclusion drawn.
What is an endorsement?
An endorsement is an institutional nod of support to a specific candidate. I like to I think that the Editorial Board’s role in election season is to be your geeky friend who researched all the candidates and can make solid, well-reasoned recommendations.
The Editorial Board does endorsements as a service to voters. For me, the measure of success of an endorsement is not a bump in the polls for that candidate. The true measure of success is framing a conversation about the candidates, having people engage in that discussion, and help voters make decisions.
How did the board decide on who to endorse this election?
The key to endorsing is in the process. Sandy Shea, the managing editor of opinion, frequently reminds us during deliberations that the Editorial Board can’t predict the future. Sometimes we’ll endorse candidates who wind up behaving badly — either legislatively or personally — and that disappoints us as a Board and as Philadelphians. (Just like voters sometimes regret their vote in hindsight.)
But the key for the Editorial Board is that we can stand by our process. Did we thoroughly vet each candidate? Did we ask the right questions? Did we fairly weigh the potential alternatives?
This year's City Council field was especially crowded. How did you handle the volume of candidates?
Typically, the endorsement process consists of in-person interviews with candidates. That was a challenge when 68 people filed petitions to run for City Council — just one of the many offices on the ballot. So we experimented and sent out an extensive survey to gauge candidates’ positions. For City Council, for example, the questionnaire included eight open-ended questions about each candidate and their priorities, 24 issue questions, and a bunch of contact and personal information.
We also co-hosted an event to convene many candidates at the same time. While candidates chatted up voters at our Candidates’ Convention, we conducted individual interviews with candidates. to get a feel for the candidates and to follow up on their questionnaire responses. All interviews were recorded and circulated to the Board. That allowed us to conduct 20 interviews in one night. The rest were invited to in-person or phone interviews in the newsroom. In total, we interviewed all seven Republicans and 21 of the 28 Democrats. (Some candidates filled a questionnaire but did not respond for an invitation to interview.)
For the City Council district race, we decided to only endorse in contested primaries. That eliminated all 10 Republican district primaries and five uncontested Democratic races. We invited all 10 candidates to fill a questionnaire and come in for an interview — nine complied.
Is it hard for the Editorial Board to come to a consensus?
Once all the interviews were done, we had multiple meetings to deliberate. Some races were harder than others, but there was always a true sense of responsibility to the readers and no decision was made lightly.
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One of the more memorable shows I ever went to was at the Troc (1994 or 1995): Sponge, Letters to Cleo, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Good show but...the show was in the middle of the summer and the air conditioning in the venue was on the fritz. They had huge industrial fans all over the place, however, it wasn’t nearly enough. So...most folks inside the venue weren’t wearing shirts (women included). It was pretty surreal. — hughesme89, on his memories of Philly’s Trocadero Theatre.