Opinion The Tattoo

Ringside at congressional catfight

U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson

NEW BRITAIN, Connecticut, U.S.A. — Here’s what two newspaper geeks do on a Friday night: we attended the congressional debate between Nancy Johnson and Charlotte Koskoff last month at Central Connecticut State University. And we actually enjoyed it.

After much confusion and some brilliant impromptu highway maneuvering, we arrived with only a vague idea of where we were going and what was to occur.

We arrived an hour early. Poor planning, perhaps, but, we figured, if we were going to be at a debate on a Friday, we might as well be early. Go ahead. Call us square. We can take it.

We strolled about the campus for an hour, looking for the ballroom and the debate crowd, watching bored students in black trench coats lounge on picnic tables smoking cloves. A few dark figures in medieval robes stalked past us. This, we guessed, had been neglected in the college view book.

We found the hall and quickly located the free food. Politics are nice, we thought, but chocolate chips are better.

We were instructed by an old man with a baseball cap (who claimed to be the caterer) to start at the top of the pile of complimentary cookies. He was up all night baking, he explained, and we weren’t sure whether to smile and thank him, or just to back away slowly. We took them post haste, and found our advisor, Steve Collins, who was skulking in a corner gathering quotes.

As usual, Steve had found the biggest freaks in the room. Behind him third party candidate Tim Knibbs was ranting to anyone who would listen (and especially those with notebooks) about the injustice of the closed debate. He said (repeatedly) that the taxpayers were being gypped, made to pay for a debate in which legitimate third party candidates (like himself) were not allowed to speak. After much arm flailing and voice raising, Knibbs was calmly escorted outside.

We breathed a sigh of relief because he had just begun to talk to us and we were a little afraid that he might have been packing heat. Ellen Russak of the League of Women Voters, sponsors of the debate, explained that Knibbs failed to meet their “requirements of a legitimate candidate.”

We didn’t blame her. If it were our debate, we wouldn’t have invited him either.

Stepping outside for a bit of fresh air, we heard the distinct echoes of an angry rally mob forming in the distance. The “Carpenters for Koskoff,” a group of union workers, carried picket signs and chanted slogans. Among our favorites were “Export Johnson, Import Koskoff” and “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Nancy Johnson’s Got to Go!”

Mingling in among the clean crowd were a few rougher chanters singing: “Nancy Johnson is a Congress Ho!”

Bruce Lydem, a union man, explained the rally: “We think that Nancy Johnson is wrong for the 6th district. She’s not for working people. She’s forgot what it’s like. It started in Bristol, with New Departure and then with Stanley. We’ve got families trying to live on $25,000 a year. If she put the effort into helping working people that she puts into campaigning and fund raising, we wouldn’t be here.”

Johnson and Koskoff make good sparring partners, we’d decided, because, besides being Republican and Democrat, each really seem to hate the others’ guts.

We filed into the ballroom, smiling ear to ear, trying to be neutral, and took our seats in the front row. By sheer chance (or perhaps some strange liberal law of physics) we found ourselves on the “Koskoff side” of the room, a few men in hard hats sitting just behind us.

And then they were ready to rumble.

As Johnson took the stage, modest applause rose, killed quickly, it seemed, by a great deal of booing. The room’s right wing was quiet as Koskoff entered the fray, but the left cheered wildly.

One of us commented to the other that, if the debate could be won solely on the merit of the candidate’s legs, Koskoff would have it hands down.

But on with the issues.

The audience was pretty lukewarm through the discussion of nuclear testing and the death penalty, but heated up with the discussion of NAFTA and HMOs.

While discussing the origin of a motion that Johnson supported to keep foreign products from being stamped “Made in the USA,” Koskoff seemed to falter. She wasn’t sure how to argue as she was obviously unclear on the case. “What was the case?” she asked Johnson. “Do your homework, Charlotte,” Johnson replied.

Just then, a Koskoff supporter darted up through the aisles, a piece of paper in hand. She looked about for a pen, grabbed one of ours, scribbled something, and passed it to Koskoff. It was then revealed that the case involved Canadian peanut swirl being imported for Skippy peanut butter. The audience giggled at the revelation as we tried to pretend that we weren’t thrilled to be a part of the democratic process.

We think that we can trace the ensuing cat fight to this exact point. Claws were unsheathed, and it began to get ugly.

We noticed that Johnson was the veteran politician, finding every conceivable way to cloud and confuse the issues. If you asked her what her favorite color was, we imagined, she would tell you why having a favorite color is important to children starving in the Middle East and that she VERY strongly supports starving children in the Middle East having favorite colors.

Koskoff was obviously the novice, still emotionally involved in the issues, still aware of the difference between what she feels and the safe answer. Perhaps when she has been in Congress for so long that she too goes deaf to the chants just outside, she will be able to win reelection with the greatest of ease, fence sitting like an old pro and having an answer for everyone.

And so that’s that. We left the debate with a little more faith in the system, a few chocolate cookies and a reaffirmed fear of third party candidates. This, we think, is what this nation’s really all about.

Amanda Lehmert and Joe Wilbur are Reporters for Youth Journalism International.

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