Late in Tuesday night's Northampton County executive debate at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan claimed, "I believe there are stark differences between myself and my opponent."
Maybe there are. But you wouldn't have known it from the low-key hour that he and Bangor Mayor John Brown spent discussing the issues confronting the next executive.
It's true that they took shots at one another's records during the part of the debate where they questioned each other and essentially asked how the voters could possibly trust their opponent with public safety, the budget or the fate of our senior citizens. But both candidates handled those challenges smoothly and with no evidence of rancor.
The rest of the time, they pretty much agreed on every issue.
Economic development? They think the county should be taking a much more active role in attracting businesses and jobs.
Reassessment? They agree it's overdue, but don't think the housing market is stable enough right now for it to make sense.
Gracedale? They both like what they've seen from the management company in charge now, although Callahan came on stronger with a pledge never to privatize.
Braden Airpark's potential sale to help with the Lehigh Valley International Airport's financial challenges? Both preached a very cautious approach to any decisions regarding Braden's future.
Regional cooperation? The county needs more of it on a variety of issues. Taxes and spending? The county could be operating more efficiently, and a tax increase only should be considered as a last resort. Long-range planning? It's sadly lacking. Bridges, the prison and other county property? Not being maintained properly.
The good thing about 60 minutes of "Ditto" in this case is that it allows voters to focus on what I believe is the thing Northampton County government most desperately needs over the next four years and beyond:
The failure of leadership over the last eight years — and certainly the eight years before that — was the common denominator in pretty much every response. I had the sense both candidates were running more against departing incumbent John Stoffa than against each other.
This is not like Lehigh County's county executive election, with stark differences in ideology and managerial preparation. It's not like Northampton County eight years ago, trying to return integrity to a government overrun with Democratic Party hacks.
This is a drifting ship that desperately needs a strong leader to grab the wheel and steer.
Callahan is favored to win, and not just because of name recognition. Running a city the size of Bethlehem is much better preparation for county executive than being Bangor's part-time mayor, and Callahan lost no opportunity to remind people of his talking points about Bethlehem's economic development successes, even building them into all his own questions for Brown. Transparent as this device was, it offered more time to tout Bethlehem's merits and his role in enhancing them.
If we're working down a debate checklist, Callahan also was appreciably more comfortable and charismatic. He spoke louder and he smiled more.
But I thought businessman Brown, whom I hadn't seen in action before, did a good job of projecting an aura of common-sense competence. His emphasis on planning and regional solutions played well, and he was prepared to address all the issues raised by his questioners and his opponent. I never had the sense he was overmatched in this debate, and whatever happens next month, I expect we'll hear more from him.
The bottom line was that although I walked away still convinced that Callahan's accomplishments and experience give him an edge, I felt much more comfortable with the idea of John Brown as executive. If I were grading the debate, I probably would give Callahan an A- and Brown a B+.
One last thing. I was encouraged to see a full house of 100-plus at this debate. For those of you who want to learn more about the other names you'll be seeing on countywide ballots, there will be a televised Lehigh County executive debate on WFMZ Channel 69 Saturday night at 6:30 and a debate featuring candidates for Northampton County Council at 7 p.m. Monday in the NCC College Center, Room 146.
I'm disgusted with both Allentown mayoral candidates because they couldn't agree on dates for a debate, incumbent Ed Pawlowski because he's awfully busy running for two offices and independent challenger Michael Donovan because he didn't want to debate before a small studio audience on TV's "Business Matters," preferring something open to the broader public. I thought that was a bad miscalculation for the challenger.
Pawlowski clearly benefits from fewer opportunities for the lesser-known Donovan to blast him in front of an audience, so I can't say I'm terribly surprised by his shyness. But I'm still disappointed that civic responsibility didn't trump political calculation.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.