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Candidates gone trivial

The full-to-capacity crowd, drawn to the Aladdin Theater Monday night by promises of a bare-all view of mayoral and city commissioner candidates, was treated instead to the lighter side of the candidates.

The evening’s format consisted of a Jeopardy-style game show called “Slabtown Smackdown” of Portland trivia, a boardroom interview, and a “Portland Idol” talent show. Each event gave the candidates more opportunities to play to the crowd than explain platforms and positions.

The “Candidates Gone Wild” event, organized by Willamette Week, was hosted by a platoon of fresh-faced, earnest Willamette Week staffers, columnist Byron Beck, radio personality Daria O’Neill and activist Steve Novick.

Beck and O’Neill led Slabtown Smackdown, revealing candidates’ knowledge on a number of vital issues, including Portland’s official bird (the great blue heron), what famous party song was recorded in Portland (“Louie Louie”) and the more widely-known name of the May Company (Meier and Frank).

All candidates were stumped by the audience question “What is the cost of an adult all-zone TriMet fare?” and were widely booed.

In the second segment, O’Neill and Beck introduced each candidate with trivia such as a favorite word, a nickname, and bad habits he would give up if elected. This provided a lot of material.

Upon learning that mayoral candidate Jim Francesconi’s least favorite word is “slavery,” Beck pushed him for details.

“Well, it’s just an ugly word. It was an ugly time in our history,” Francesconi said.

“Oh,” Beck replied. “I thought it was an S&M reference.”

O’Neill asked mayoral candidate Tom “Grandpa Cottage Cheese Head” Potter, visibly the senior member of the group, “Look at this crowd. How can such an old person be mayor of such a young and vibrant city?”

Mayoral candidate James Posey revealed that if elected, he would have to give up his bad habit of “swearing like a motherfucker,” he said, mouthing the last word clearly to the delighted audience.

“James, we’re at the Aladdin,” O’Neill said. “Please share your favorite curse word with us.”

Posey thought for a moment, then enunciated carefully, “cocksucker.”

The crowd loved it.

Crowd response was a huge part of the event, with campaign aides raucously cheering on their candidate and widespread negative feedback when candidates stumbled or slipped up.

The most politically informative section of the program was the Boardroom interview. Novick declared the segment “the toughest job interview ever,” and many of the tough questions and debate promised in the events billing were found there.

Novick asked person-specific questions that included digs at the candidates.

“First, time is money. That means you, James Posey. Second, this is a meaningless rhetoric free zone. That means you, Tom Potter. If I hear any rambling on about your ‘vision,’ I will not hesitate to give you the hook,” Novick said, viciously gesturing with the hook attached to his arm.

Novick’s grilling was a clever mix of questions designed to make candidates squirm and audience members laugh and heckle.

He reminded Francesconi of his opportunity to send the Bush administration a message to invest in cities’ infrastructure when he voted against a city council resolution last spring to oppose the war in Iraq. He offered city commissioner candidate Nick Fish the apparently unwelcome opportunity to meet opponent Sam Adams’ accusations of not being specific by having him hypothetically cut five million from the city budget.

Though some of the questions revealed candidates’ positions and plans, the interview quickly degenerated to lighthearted, surface answers.

Sam Adams, who is Mayor Katz’ chief of staff, was asked what he could do to bring “that new car smell” to City Hall. Instead of outlining plans for change, Adams speciously mixed the serious and silly in his reply that he would open the windows, hold open houses, “spritzer the chambers with, uh, the fine perfume of the, uh, local (pause) linden tree” and get maybe some naugahyde furniture.

The final installment of the program was the “Portland Idol” talent show. The crowd’s least favorite candidate, Francesconi, gave his bilingual Italian/English speech to shouts of “Money, money, money!” and “Arrivederci!” from the audience.

Posey announced that after the session was over, he planned on heading down to nearby bar Who’s On First to discuss “what my campaign’s really about,” politely pointing out that little real discussion had occurred. He then persuaded house band Menomena to play a little to back up his tap dancing.

With a smattering of piano playing from Phil Busse, a one-act play by Tom Potter, and an extended ironing metaphor by Sam Adams, O’Neill and Beck wrapped the show up.

In response to increasingly heated demands for an audience question period, Beck said, “Yeah, we already did that, so keep up!”

After the program, audience members could meet with the candidates, but the crowd cleared out quickly, even with the promise of a Menomena set to come.

Mayoral candidate Phil Busse responded afterwards, “It was fun, for the most part. It’s good (for the public) to see the candidates as people. There could have been more substance. All night, I had one substantive question.”

Down the street at Who’s On First, Posey and staff were still talking the finer points of his campaign with eager listeners after Menomena’s show was over.

Cory Murphy, a PSU student who is taking time off from school to work on Posey’s campaign, basked in what he saw as a successful night, but also wishes there’d been more serious debate, both in “Candidates Gone Wild” and in general. Specifically, he targets the university.

“PSU spends all this lobbying money down in Salem. Why hasn’t PSU said, hey, we need to be looking at who’s mayor and sponsoring forums on campus?”