Public Policy Forum Blog

1st Quarter 2016 President's Message

Election season can be a difficult time to work for a nonpartisan public policy think tank. On a personal level, the urge to spout off on social media about things we see or hear from candidates must be squelched, and requests to place yard signs or make campaign contributions must be rejected. And, on a professional level, we refrain from aggressively challenging candidates' statements or positions.

Nonetheless, while we will not be able to publicly state our views on electoral matters, the Forum plays an important role in the electoral cycle in ways that appropriately reflect our mission.

One such way is our conduct of candidate debates. In my eight years as Forum President, we have organized debates for the offices of Milwaukee County Executive, Milwaukee City Attorney, and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent. But 2016 is the first election season in recent memory in which we were able to secure debates for the offices of both Milwaukee County Executive and Milwaukee Mayor – arguably the two most influential local offices in the State of Wisconsin. 

We would like to think that our success in attracting the candidates' participation was based not only on our reputation for objectivity, but also on the fact that the Forum is a place where candidates can be confident that the discussion will focus on policy issues, as opposed to charges made in campaign literature or other topics that are political or ideological in nature. That doesn't mean our debates are any better than anyone else's, but it does mean that ours are the ones to attend if you are interested in substantive policy discussion.

For those who missed our February 22 Milwaukee County Executive debate or our March 23 Milwaukee Mayor debate, tune in and see for yourselves. They are available for viewing by clicking here and here.

In addition, and also in the spirit of promoting thoughtful policy discussion during heated election campaigns, I am pleased to announce what might be a first for the Forum: a plunge into presidential politics.

On Thursday, October 6, we will host a dinner featuring Bob Woodward, the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author and Associate Editor of The Washington Post. Mr. Woodward will be sharing his views on the modern American presidency and the 2016 presidential election – topics that certainly will be relevant less than five weeks from election day.

Our decision to organize such an event reflects the Forum’s 103-year-old tradition of promoting thoughtful discourse about the key public policy issues facing our region, state, and nation. The event will take its cues from our highly successful 100th anniversary gala dinner in 2013, which featured columnists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, and centered on our theme of "A Century of Civility."

If ever there was a time to promote civility and to defuse anger in American politics, this is it. We hope our event will be attended by Democrats and Republicans alike who wish to escape from the attack ads and vitriol for one evening and hear from one of our country's foremost presidential observers and thinkers. Save the date – additional details will be coming soon.     

Rob Henken