Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Medium and Message

I have to say, Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker is a pretty cool customer.

Wednesday he walked into the KSL-TV studio 90 seconds before an hour-long debate hosted by Doug Wright was to go live.

I mean LIVE. Like broadcasting out over the airwaves with no delays, no taping.

If Becker had been two minutes later, the show would have started without him sitting next to his challenger, Jackie Biskupski – who got into the studio with 10 minutes to spare.

And Becker remained casual, collected, often smiling and gesturing with his hands like his last name was Beckerino from Florence.

In almost any high profile election these days politicos and campaign staffers – often media-types, as well – put great emphasis on debates.

Which I’ve always found odd, since running a state, city or even a country, or making city ordinances or state or federal laws, has little to do with being a good debater.

But there it is: Who won the debate? Is shouted after a presidential get-together, even when 15 people are on the stage.

Well, Becker and Biskupski have faced each other in a number of joint appearances this summer and fall.

I’ve watched two televised debates – the KUED-TV affair a week ago on my television and the KSL-TV standoff, where I was in the small audience in the studio.

Who won, you want to know?

Well, in my opinion Becker did in both.

But Biskupski rallied for a much better performance in the KSL show.

She is clearly a quick learner.

I’ve known Biskupski for more than 20 years since she first came into the Utah House.

I’ve known Becker even longer – way back when he worked for Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson.

And I have to say that the gregarious, funny and often smiling Biskupski I’ve known has not shown up in the mayoral debates I’ve seen so far.

Too bad.

But I understand it.

Force me in front of a live TV camera and I’d pass out – face down in my notes.

Remember that sadly funny scene in Broadcast News when the Albert Brooks character – a great reporter but a weak anchor – got “flop sweat.”

And viewers were calling the station concerned he was having a heart attack on set?

So I admire anyone who can do live TV.

But if the medium is the message – or a significant part of the message – then Becker is showing better than Biskupski in the debates.

And, anyway, it’s always hard to tackle an incumbent – he knows the issues so much more than any challenger.

Biskupski is refining her criticisms of Becker.

But – as Becker points out – there is no train or tunnel planned in the new Mountain Accord (which Biskupski keeps bringing up).

And how does she go after Becker on firing former Police Chief Chris Burbank – when Burbank was let go for not following through strongly enough over sexual harassment allegations by three female police officers?

Biskupski says Becker should have been tougher sooner. But at the same time she can’t defend Burbank – and polls show Becker is vulnerable for firing the guy at all?

Admittedly, Biskupski was put in a poor light – almost literally – in the KUED debate because as Becker was answering a question the camera stayed on both of them, and vice versa.

So when Becker was being suave – if I can use that word – Biskupski was (I’m not exaggerating here) almost scowling at the camera – perhaps believing she was off camera.

I know this is not fair – but I think it is still true – that voters don’t like to see a frowning female politician. While a male politician can look “tough” or “strong-minded,” put a woman in that view and voters react negatively.

Remember back to 1992 and 1994 with me for a moment.

Enid Greene (her last name changes came later) was running as a Republican in the old 2nd Congressional District.

Enid is a smart lawyer. And in 1992 she dressed it —  business suits, firm hairstyle, and eyeglasses.

She was seen as too harsh, even too much like a lawyer. She lost that 1992 race.

In 1994, the old Enid was gone; now in dresses, a softer hairstyle and contact lens. There were a lot of other factors in 1994, but Enid won.

Biskupski was doing a lot of frowning in the KUED debate, less in the KSL, but still too much.

Biskupski has a nice smile, easy-going nature and a fine sense of humor.

But we don't see it – at least in the debates I’ve seen.

Here are some numbers in UtahPolicy’s latest Dan Jones & Associates polling which speaks to likeability. You decide if they matter much:

Jones asked 588 registered city voters if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Becker and Biskupski. In short, do you like these two?

Jones finds:

— Becker, in office eight years, is seen favorably by 55 percent of voters; 28 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him; 10 percent have heard of the mayor but have no opinion; 4 percent have never heard of him, and 2 percent don’t know.

— Biskupski, a Utah House member for 13 years from Salt Lake City; 48 percent have a favorable opinion of her; 21 percent an unfavorable opinion; 17 percent have heard of her, but no opinion; 10 percent never heard of her, and 4 percent don’t know.

Twenty-seven percent of city voters have no opinion of Biskupski – which is a pretty small number considering this is her first citywide campaign.

Good for her. Now they have several weeks to learn about her, like her, and vote for her.

Still, there is the chance for Becker to go “negative” on Biskupski in his advertising, hoping to push those “don’t know her” voters into his ranks.

More than a fourth of city voters have an unfavorable opinion of the mayor. Bad for him; for he probably can’t change those numbers much over the next few weeks until Election Day.

But a fifth (21 percent) of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Biskupski. If she feels she has to go “negative” against Becker in her advertising over the next few weeks, that number will solidify, even grow, because there is a higher number who don’t know her yet.

As we’ve written many times here at UtahPolicy, Becker needs some GOP votes in this officially nonpartisan race.

Jones finds that 45 percent of city Republicans look upon Becker favorably, while Biskupski is liked by only 27 percent of Republicans.

Sixty-three percent of Democrats like Becker, 63 percent like Biskupski.

Fifty-two percent of “very active” Mormons like Becker; only 31 percent of “very active” Mormons like Biskupski – who would be the city’s first openly gay mayor.

So, Ms. Biskupski, lighten up a bit and smile.

We who know you, know you can still be a tough decision-maker as mayor when you need to be.

And Mr. Mayor, congrats on doing a good debating job – and we’ll see if your opponent will bring more smiles (as well as more juice) to the campaign over the next few weeks.