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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The 8th District Debate: Boos, Cheers, and Passion

A look at Tuesday’s 8th District congressional debate between Tammy Duckworth and Joe Walsh, through the eyes of panelist Dick Kay and moderator Paul Green

Joe Walsh and Tammy Duckworth

The vicious, ugly brawl in the 8th congressional district between freshman Republican Joe Walsh and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth attracted a thousand of their noisy supporters to a two-hour debate Tuesday night at the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows. They began lining up at 4 p.m. for the 7 p.m. start.

Roosevelt University professor Paul Green moderated, assisted by two panelists—retired WMAQ newsman Dick Kay, now the self-described “progressive” host of a Saturday afternoon radio show on left-leaning WCPT-AM, and conservative talker Steve Cochran, whose weekday show is an early evening fixture on right-leaning WIND-AM. 

According to Dick Kay, whom I reached by telephone the morning after, Walsh supporters positioned themselves directly in front of him. “They were yelling at [me] right in [my] face….. The crowd was very angry with me. There was loud booing, cheering. I worried that I would have to debate the crowd. There was so much vitriol aimed at me. Now I know how Jim Lehrer feels.”

Walsh backers saw Kay as an obvious Duckworth devotee. He led off by asking Walsh if he’s too extreme for the district, followed by throwing back at Walsh his own words blasting Duckworth for wasting time picking out a dress to wear to the Democratic National Convention instead of remaining in the district to talk to residents; for dwelling too much on her war injuries, for referring to President Obama as “son.”

Time Out Chicago’s Rob Feder reported criticism aimed at Kay for being nakedly partisan. Feder noted a tweet from the Chicago Tribune’s “Clout Street”: “Dick Kay throwing fastballs/beanballs at Walsh, tossing red meat queries at Duckworth.” Another tweet from Kay’s co-panelist Cochran: “Dick Kay asks another loaded, hostile laced question to Walsh. Walsh responds, ‘I’m not even sure I understand the question.’” (Kay describes Cochran as “good guy, very straight forward,” and adds that “he got a few boos from our side.”)

“I’m progressive, and I’m the first to admit it,” says Kay, who tells me that when he was a newsman at WMAQ—he retired in 2006—he moderated too many debates to remember them all, but he does remember that “I didn’t take a point of view.”  About Tuesday night, he adds, “I have no doubt that I was not as harsh on Tammy Duckworth, but I did not have the material.” Later in our conversation he goes further, telling me that in his role as a talk show host for a progressive radio station, he now lives his beliefs: “I defend the Democratic Party. I defend the president. I promote President Obama. I’m a progressive voice for the Democrats. That’s what I do.”

Kay, who will not divulge his age, says that he’s been in the news business for 52 years, the last five hosting WCPT’s Saturday program, Back on the Beat. (Disclosure: I’ve been on Kay’s show and will return Saturday to discuss the vice-presidential debate.) 

When I reached moderator Paul Green by his telephone he described the Walsh/Duckworth faceoff as “one of the most exciting debates I’ve ever been to, certainly as a moderator. Passion counts.” He added, “Voter turnout is going to be enormous in the 8th District. I haven’t seen people so pumped up, and that includes presidential debates. I was very impressed.”  He confirms that there was a bar outside the ballroom where the debate unfolded.  “There was alcohol, but they didn’t need it to get themselves excited about the debate.”

The fourth and final Walsh/Duckworth debate is sure to be more refined; it’s on October 18 on WTTW.

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