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Questions Reporters Ought to Ask Political Candidates

Robert Niles
Published: June 18, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
I first wrote a version of the article below on my robertniles.com website. I've updated it and brought it over here, to live on SensibleTalk.com.

Journalists should not forget to ask these basic background questions of all political candidates they cover. Their answers will provide warnings about legal, ethical and financial controversies a candidate might face during the campaign. The answers might also provide a good lead for a news feature, and at the very least will guide your research into the candidate's past. Couple these answers with an investigation into who's giving money to their campaigns, and you've got some solid campaign coverage that goes beyond the spin of the campaign trail.

You'll have the best chance to get the straight answers you want -- and to follow up when a candidate gets evasive -- if you ask these questions in person. Protect yourself by recording the candidate's answers, too. Follow up 'yes' answers by seeking full details. Allow candidates to explain themselves -- sometimes past experiences become powerful incentives in a person's development. But if a candidate refuses to answer, or fudges an answer, note that, as well.

A complete set of candidate questions and answers (or refusals to answer) can become a valuable citizens' resource on your organization's website.

LEGAL

  • Where do you live?
    (Check to make sure that street address actually lies within the district the candidate is running to represent.)

  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Have you ever been convicted of, pled no contest to, or placed in a diversion program for a crime, other than parking or minor traffic offenses?
    (Then run a check. And remember, DUI is not a minor offense.)

  • Have you ever been the subject of a restraining order?
  • Have you ever lost a lawsuit?
  • Have you ever bought or sold illegal drugs?

    TAXES

  • Have you ever failed to pay taxes when you were supposed to?
  • Have you ever been penalized, fined or cited by the IRS?

    FAMILY

  • If you have been or are engaged, married or divorced - to whom, and when?
  • Do you have children?
    If so, what are their names and ages?

    Where do they (or did they) attend school (elementary through post-secondary)? If they did not attend public schools, why not?

    RELIGION/COMMUNITY

  • To what religious and civic organizations do you belong?
    (Research the stated beliefs of these organizations. If they promote or oppose potentially controversial beliefs in your community -- such as gender restrictions, opposition to birth control, homosexual marriage, strict pacifism, etc. -- ask the candidate to clarify his/her personal position on those issues and to reconcile his/her position with that of the organization. If they don't agree, why do they belong?)

  • To what charities, causes or civic organizations have you contributed more than $200 over the past year?

    EMPLOYMENT

  • Who is your current employer?
  • What companies or businesses do you own, or hold a greater than five-percent stake in? On what corporate boards do you or have you served?
    (Check federal and state regulatory agencies for any actions against these companies. Also look in the courts for any judgments against them.)

  • Have you ever been fired or laid off from a job?

    QUALIFICATIONS

  • What are your professional qualifications for the office you seek? (Not necessary for general representation offices, such as Congress.)
    (Ask candidates for assessor if they have a real estate or property appraiser's license. Ask candidates for coroner if they have a medical degree. Ask public works candidates if they have an engineering license. And so forth. Then check with the appropriate state licensing board to see that the candidates' licenses are valid, and if they have ever been disciplined.)

    Remember, you're not simply trying to play "gotcha" with these inquiries. You are trying to develop a deeper understanding of a political candidate's background, qualification and motivation for public service.

    Add in the comments your suggestions for addition questions, strategies for getting engaged answers or examples of interviews you've published.

    Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

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