How To Confront a Candidate

It is often bemoaned that candidates only talk about certain issues, only debate the same topics, and hardly ever disagree on anything of true substance.  “My economic package is better than yours.”  “I’m tougher on our enemies than the other guy.”  Blah, blah, blah.  When we consider that Obama, Bush, and McCain all agreed on (1) the Bailout of the banks, (2) hundreds of thousands of American soldiers patrolling multiple Middle Eastern nations, (3) the Patriot Act, (4) maintaining the Drug War, (5) paying mercenary armies like Blackwater, (6) appointing industry insiders to regulatory positions, (7) accepting billions of dollars in campaign donations, and so many other things…  what do they have left to disagree about??  The level of discrimination against gay people.  A few percentage points on the tax bill.

So the key to getting your issue on the map is to ask the candidate in public, with voters and media in the room.  Even if you are creating your own media, the key is to get them “on the record.”  Wait in line for the microphone and ask away.  Obviously this is easier to do in a local race than a big national one, but those interactions are going to have more impact anyway.  People need to see that the president is, in many ways, inconsequential because there is little difference between candidates.

Go look in the mirror and practice how to load up a question.  Here, try these on for size:

“With prison spending exceeding education spending, and legal discrimination against 200,000 people in our state due to their felony record, where they are barred from employment, where computers are deleting applications that reflect a felony record, where public housing is denying the reunification of families… do you think we should continue to use prisons as a solution for mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse?  Or do you think we should find an alternative?”

 Check out the tactic of leading in with some facts.  Frame the question.  Make it so they must agree… in public at least.

“Considering that education is the oldest form of self-empowerment and the only known pathway for stability, not only for an individual but for a community, do you think prisoners and former prisoners should be allowed to get an education?”

Follow-up:  “And what do you say to the person who feels that a former prisoner’s education is taking a classroom seat away from someone who was not in prison, and more deserving?”

Who can be against education?

“In a society where defense attorneys are sometimes earning millions of dollars each year defending drug clients, do you find any conflict of interest for a legislator, who has ties to the defense attorneys through their own firm or their close associates, to make laws that create more clients?”

“With all the failed results from rehabilitation and re-entry programs designed without the input of those who have direct experience, do you think it is time to listen to former prisoners (those who are truly the primary stakeholder in rehabilitation) about what works and doesn’t work… or should we keep giving money to so-called experts and the politically connected entities?“

“Do you think people released from prison should be encouraged to get more involved in their community by voting, holding jobs, and raising their children… or should they be pushed into the shadows of an underclass where drugs and violence are essential for survival?”

Here’s one I have for Attorney General Eric Holder, who is coming to do a talk on voting at my law school.  Let’s see if he selects it, and answers….

“In Louisiana there are 66,000 people on probation and parole who cannot vote, and over 10% of New Orleans is barred from voting.  Considering as Felony Disenfranchisement laws have a disparate impact on People of Color, do you believe the Justice Department should consider enforcing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in states, such as Louisiana, that are covered under Section 5 of the Act?”

Film it, post it, share it.  Let the follow-ups begin, and let the candidates show their knowledge, intelligence, leadership, and compassion for all their constituents shine… or not.

What question would YOU ask?

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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