“Mr. Tuff, I’m Donald Slump.” He seized my hand with the firm grip of an experienced hand-shaker, at the same time glancing about my office with surprise and puzzlement. “Do you usually vote in municipal elections?”
“Yes. I feel that it is my civic duty, but also I like the feeling of power, probably imaginary, during that minute in the voting booth when I mark my X.”
“As you know, many people don’t. I’m chairman of the Blandsville Region Active Voters Organization, BRAVO for short – and we’re trying to get a better turnout for the election this Friday, so tomorrow night, Wednesday, we’ve arranged a debate in the High School gym at seven for the four mayoralty candidates and they all agreed that you would be a fine moderator of the event.”
I was flattered. Did they want me for my intelligence and integrity, my impartiality, my forceful personality? “Many of your former students are now old enough to vote and your presence might attract some of them and maybe their relatives and friends.” To give me a hard time, I thought.
Many of the people at the meeting would be older, so that I couldn’t use my ‘seniors – only’ rule. “I have no experience,” I demurred.
“You managed high school classes for over three decades.”
“Yes, but I had some control over the students’ final marks. I have no power over voters. Besides, I’m a non-violent detective.”
“This is a political debate, not a peace rally. Oh, yes, there is an honorarium of one hundred dollars.” I realized that I could not shirk my duty as a citizen.
Wednesday night at six forty-five I entered the gym. The school awakened many memories, not all of them good. Rows of folding chairs had been set up, a few of them already occupied like the squares on a chessboard in mid-game. At the front was a long table with seats for the four candidates and me. In each of the two aisles a microphone stood upright, like an épée before a fencing match.
The candidates entered individually, each carrying a large cup of coffee or tea. Maddie Barlow was a staunch feminist who would get a big share of the women’s votes. Wilfrid King, a three term councillor, hoped his supporters would remain loyal to him in his new venture. Pierre Pearson, a school board trustee who probably had political ambitions, was trying to move up the ladder. Jack Turmoil, a maverick who runs in every election, municipal, provincial, and federal, would get his usual few votes from people who have no idea of who the candidates are or what they stand for. Cynics said there should be a fifth choice on the ballot: None of the above.
Being used to operating on strict, bell-defined periods of time, I called the meeting to order promptly at seven, explaining the format: each candidate would have five minutes to give his or her plans for transforming Blandsville into a heaven-on-earth over the next two years. Then, for half an hour, candidates could question each other in what I feared could become a bout of verbal karate. In the final, half-hour segment, members of the audience could quiz the candidates.
The aspiring mayors drew for speaking order and it was lady first. Ms. Barlow promised more day-care, more women on the town payroll, and more copies of the works of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Germaine Greer, and Bella Abzug in every school and public library. Her fans cheered loudly.