MARSHALL - It's been some time since Ted Suss has taken part in a debate, but the former legislator is looking forward to tonight's candidates' forum as another big step toward rejoining the Legislature.
To do that, the DFLer will have to defeat Gary Dahms, who won with 62 percent of the vote in 2010. But Suss entered the race confident, knowing he can draw on his past experiences in the Legislature, as well as the 12 years he spent as a school administrator, a position that gave him the opportunity to work closely with legislators. And as far as tonight's event goes, Suss is looking forward to interacting with a larger group of people, as opposed to all those one-on-one conversations he's had during his campaign.
"Prior to this campaign, I haven't been in a formal debate since back in the '70s when I ran for the House," said Suss, the former superintendent of the Wabasso School District, who served in the Legislature from 1973-76. "I've been involved in a lot of public speaking, but this is the first time I've debated since then. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to speak to a large group."
Suss said he's used to the "hot seat" that comes with being a public figure, and equates events like tonight's to his time as a superintendent when he had to answer questions from parents and school board members.
"I certainly am not intimidated by it; I see it as a chance to shineand a chance to screw up, I guess," he said. "My biggest post-answer regret is always what I didn't say, not what I did say - why didn't I make that point or include that bit of information. You have to respond quickly and accurately, and this is not a situation where I'm doing something that's totally foreign to me."
Chris Swedzinski, who is looking to return to St. Paul for a second term as the 16A House Representative, calls running for office a "giant job interview," of which debates are part of the process.
"This job is about meeting people, and debates give you the opportunity to have frank conversations with people, whether it's in a large group or one-on-one; that's a positive thing," Swedzinski said. "They have a meet-the-candidates reception before the debate, and that's a good idea, since some of the people there might not be able to stay for the whole thing."
Swedzinski, who in 2010 continued the Republican's stranglehold in the district by defeating Ramona Larson by 26 percentage points, said because being an elected official at this level is more of a part-time job, it's important for candidates to do their homework prior to debates.
"I've done some reading, looked at some materials, gone over some of the bills I carried," he said. "I don't think about this every waking moment, because it is a part-time job. I might be in the tractor one day, welding another day, but you have to get refocused and prepare, just like you would for any interview. You want to be at your best."
Dahms, a Republican from Redwood Falls, is also seeking a second term. He earned a little more than 62 percent of the vote in his 2010 against Al Kruse, who this year is running against Swedzinski for the House 16A seat.
Dahms calls debates part of the process leading up to the Nov. 6 election. But that process is a fluid one, he said, as issues change from election to election.
"It's one piece of the process, and it gives candidates a chance to express their views and opinions on the various issues," he said. "I think there are big issues every year. Two years ago, the big issue was budgeting; this year, it's job creation and how we're going to create jobs."
"You never really know what to expect," out of these debates, Kruse said. "I enjoy the opportunity to reach out to people, but you don't really know how many people you'll reach. I hope a lot of people show up."
Tonight's debate will have somewhat of a town hall feel. Candidates will field questions from a media panel, as well as from the audience. Dahms said the more issues that are covered, the better.
"You want to get a variety of questions," he said. "It really doesn't make much difference to me how the questions are derived as long as we don't sit and focus the full hour on one small section."
Kruse, however, said in the future he would like to have more civic conversations about the issues, where just one or two topics would be discussed. He said that could prove to be more beneficial if candidates were given time to go more in-depth with certain issues facing the state.
"It would be nice to be able to go back and forth about issues and talk about the whys and wherefores instead of glossing over things and saying, 'It would be nice to do this,'" he said. "We like things to be clean and simple and they aren't. The act of governance is messy - it's often referred to as making sausage: The process is messy but the results hopefully are good. Everything is not black and white like we'd like it to be."
The House candidates will take the stage from 7-8 p.m. today and will be followed by the Senate candidates. There is no limit as to how many questions can be posed, but candidates are limited to 90 seconds to answer each question. They will also have two minutes for a closing statement.
"It's not a lot of time, so you've got to be concise," Dahms said. "If you let it stretch out too long you just don't get to enough questions."
Southwest Minnesota State University Political Science Professor Doug Simon will moderate the House panel, while Vicky Brockman, Social Sciences chairwoman and professor of Sociology, will moderate the Senate panel.