Bill Buresh and County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic squared off in their first debate Tuesday night at Humboldt Park School. Buresh had the more onerous challenge as he had to face a County Board veteran at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters and hosted by a newspaper friendly to Dimitrijevic.
Questions were submitted beforehand and chosen by the Bayview Compass based on their relevance to the community. The bulk of the questions favored preserving or improving county programs like say transit and parks. There were very few questions running government more efficiently and no questions about scaling down programs. With that being said, Dimitrijevic seemed to have a home court advantage.
It shouldn't be too surprising then that Supervisor Dimitrijevic performed well in the debate. Her answers were elaborate, and she played to the crowd. Buresh held his own considering that he hasn't been in a debate since high-school. His answers were generally short and sometimes vague, but stressed a common theme of "living within our means" and reducing county debt. Critics believed his answers were too repetitive, but supporters thought it was important that he stay on message.
The general tone of the debate was civil. Several times, Buresh criticized the County Board for "frivolous spending" proposals like the $775,000 County Courthouse sculpture or the $65,000 Shakespeare program. Dimitrijevic described Buresh's rhetoric as sound bites that one would expect from right wing talk radio. Although Buresh is a lifetime Democrat, it didn't stop him from being compared to Governor Scott Walker.
About the roughest part of the debate was when Dimitrijevic told Buresh that recycling was not a project, but rather a law. Buresh immediately quipped, "If it's a law and you're on the parks committee, then why is it not getting done?" His response elicited a small snicker from the audience.
As with most incumbents, Dimitrijevic had to answer questions about her performance. To name a few, she addressed issues of her attendance at county meetings, her support for the $65,000 Shakespeare program, and a voting record not very congruent with Chris Abele's policies.
One person wondered why Dimitrijevic had missed 10% of her County Board's meetings? Coming just short of saying that Buresh submitted the question himself, Dimitrijevic likened it to the rhetoric used by Scott Walker's in previous attempts to downsize the County Board. (As an aside: Dimitrijevic mentioned Walker about a dozen times in the debate.) She considered the question about her attendance "offensive" because she puts in "at least 15-20 [hours] alone in nights and weekends at neighborhood events and meetings."
Buresh criticized Dimitrijevic indirectly for three specific frivolous spending proposals: a $775,000 courthouse sculpture, a $65,000 for a Shakespeare program, and a $50,000 on a decorative bus shelter. He said that the County needed "to stop with the special projects, pay down the debt so we can restore our services."
In her rebuttals, Dimitrijevic largely brushed off the points about the courthouse sculpture and the artistic bus shelter, but decided to stay her ground on the Shakespeare program - which she described as an "out of box" and "innovative" alternative to youth incarceration. She explained, "If you could just save one youth from being incarcerated, it would save much more money than that [$65,000]."
Not far into the debate, Buresh's strategy seemed to materialize. He made no bones of being an ally of Chris Abele and appeared to stand behind him on every initiative. He made it clear that as a County Supervisor, he would work with Abele to get things done. This isn't a new message for Buresh. He has styled himself in the past as an "Abele-Democrat."
Not to be outdone, Dimitrijevic said that she too is an ally of Abele explaining that she agreed with him more than 90% of the time during the budget process and even endorsed his candidacy "pre-primary." But she did seem to pooh-pooh the idea of agreeing too much with Abele as she began to count their disagreements.
Dimitrijevic said Abele was "incorrect" to cut funding for the County Paramedic Program, that he was "erroneous" in increasing paratransit fares, and thought his cuts to the Sheriff's Department "went way too deep." Dimitrijevic had also expressed "disappointed" with the way Abele was treating his workers.
As with most first-time performances, Buresh was perceptibly nervous. He's a newcomer to politics and is more familiar with running businesses than public debates. If you expected him to be a silver-tongued politician, then his performance was likely a little flat. But don't underestimate him because he learns quickly, doesn't back down, and has a serious appetite to win.
Dimitrijevic did well in the debate, but some of her answers were surprising. While defending her position to keep a full-time County Board, she said we need to ensure that Latinos and African-Americans are represented adequately.
But, not even a year ago she supported a redistricting plan that had cut away a second majority voting-age district for the County's Hispanic community. As we covered the story last spring, If her plan had been finalized, it would have diluted the voting strength of Latinos in the entire county for the next ten years.
She also disagreed with Abele about cutting the County's Paramedic Program, but didn't mention that she had voted to cut half of its funding even though there was an alliance of supervisors pushing for keeping the funding fully intact. Eventually, the Board gave into the pressure and authorized only half the funding for the program.
And finally - during the budget process - Dimitrijevic said she agreed with County Executive Abele more than 90% of the time. Our response is, "So did everyone else." It should also be noted that Abele issued twenty-three vetoes in the budget, and the County Board overturned eighteen of them. Dimitrijevic, however, voted to override all twenty-three of Abele's vetoes. With allies like that, who needs opponents?