Hot Seat

By staff October 1, 2008

Local political candidates know a Sarasota Herald-Tribune editorial board endorsement carries weight—and in the lesser-known races can determine an election. The Herald-Tribune interviews every candidate on the ballot from Manatee to NorthPort, and its endorsements reach a daily readership of up to 269,000. We asked Tom Tryon, who’s directed the Herald-Tribune’s endorsements since 1990, about the process.

Explain the interview process. Every candidate gets half an hour. They have a couple of minutes to tell us what they think is most important, and then we ask questions.

Do you think you really get a sense of them? You get fooled, but yes, you usually have a pretty good idea of who’s prepared and who’s not. That to me is the big thing. Can you bring something to the table? Have you done some homework?

What do you say when they leave the room? We try to be courteous. There’s been some eye rolling.

Which candidates make the board roll their eyes? The unprepared ones. You ask them a question about what they would cut from the budget and they say, “I’ve never looked at the budget.” Dude, get a copy of the budget. 

You’re accused of being a liberal-leaning, one-party board. I would like to think that we are proudly and vociferously in the political center. We’ve endorsed Republicans and Democrats alike.

Have you had big disagreements about who to endorse? Oh, yeah. Seventy-five percent just arrive by near-instant consensus. Then there are those where the group is clearly torn. We don’t have a litmus test, no point system. If you’re not dogmatic, it’s harder.

How do you resolve disputes? Candidates give us references, so we call them. We call around to our sources and to other people who might know them. We’ll talk in person, or I’ll send an e-mail with everybody’s thoughts or my recommendation for breaking the deadlock. All of them go to [publisher] Diane McFarlin for final check-off.

Does she have veto power? She does, but I don’t think she’s ever overridden the staff.

How do you bring up damning information that opposing candidates send you? We bring up things that are public knowledge, on the public record and have been reported on.  One of the last things I want to have happen is for a candidate to leave this building and think that we were out to get them from the beginning.

Do you hear from them after the endorsements come out? A couple, every time. You’re probably going to see the person you didn’t recommend in a public setting within a month or two, and you’ll have to look them in the eyes. It keeps you humble. 

What should candidates not say? “I’m doing this to give back to the community.” “I haven’t read the budget.” Or they want to cut back on government waste and inefficiency without having a single example. They’re well-meaning people, but a lot of them are in over their heads. It [public office] really is labor-intensive.

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