Viewers who tuned in to the Grand Forks Herald’s mayoral debate, held via a live broadcast Thursday night, probably noticed a few new things about the candidates.
Real estate developer Brandon Bochenski — always confident, sometimes jocular — struck a humble tone. Robin David, a city workforce and immigration staffer, swung a string of rhetorical punches at her rivals. Mayor Mike Brown offered familiar arguments on behalf of his 20-year record — now backed up with redoubled energy behind graphs and notes occasionally held close to his home office camera.
Thursday evening was, above all else, a chance for candidates to debate what’s best for Grand Forks. But it was also a chance to see how they’ve trimmed their sails since their last public meeting, an April 28 forum hosted virtually by the Grand Forks Young Professionals. The versions of themselves candidates offered on Thursday evening are an update on what viewers saw just weeks ago, and they offer a window into how each of the candidates is making adjustments for the final weeks of this race to City Hall.
Those adjustments are key, especially during the heart of May, when much of Grand Forks is expected to vote. Grand Forks County is voting by mail amid the pandemic, meaning that June 9, Election Day, is mostly a deadline on a weeks-long voting season — with viewers likely making firm decisions and mailing in ballots based on Thursday’s performance. That makes any shifts in style all the more notable.
Bochenski, for example, offered a more moderate tone on Thursday night than he did in the April forum. In the earlier event, he raised a lack of leadership at Altru Health System, UND and the city in his opening statement. In a Monday interview with the Herald, he denied having an over-brash style; by Thursday, he spoke with more measure.
“I’m a strong leader, but I’m also a fair leader. I’m willing to learn,” he said in his opening statement for the Herald’s debate. “I’ve always been able to inspire those around me, and this community is in need of inspiration like no other time.”
Thursday evening’s event also saw plenty of rhetorical barbs, both subtle and overt, as candidates clashed over local housing, economics and the coronavirus. The Young Professionals’ forum had less of this — partly due to the format of the event and the questions — but it was apparent on Thursday that candidates had carefully read one another’s platforms.
David, in particular, turned in a much different performance than she did in April, arguing in a steadier, firmer tone on behalf of her vision of a collaborative, resident-first style. She made apparent swipes at other candidates (“this is not a self-funded campaign,” she said at one point), and worked to sketch out why her style would be the best fit for City Hall.
"What I am hearing from workers in Grand Forks is uncertainty,” she said of the coronavirus. “They need their paychecks, but they also need to know they are safe."
The economy was at the center of the debate on Thursday — both its fundamentals before the coronavirus pandemic and how candidates, as mayor, would steer the city through the crisis. Bochenski’s argument has long been that the local economy could be better — that wages are lagging and that the government needs to act.
“We need a leader that’s business friendly, and someone who is going to stand up for the jobs and employees in this town,” he argued on Thursday, ticking off a list of solutions, like selling city commercial buildings, that could free up money for economic development.
David’s line takes some nuance. She feels the economy is strong — but that there’s still a ways to go.
“What is missing right now, what the next step is, is to focus on those specific challenges we have around poverty and affordable housing, because that’s critical to making sure that our economy can remain stable and grow.”
Brown, to put it plainly, played the hits: pointing again and again to the community’s growth during his 20 years in office, bolstered by papers held close to the camera and rattled-off statistics, often about investment totals — “Billion-dollar boom” is a favorite phrase of his — or the city’s efforts to keep property mill rates affordable.
"People wouldn't invest in this town if they didn't have faith in our future,” he said.
“I would like another four years to finish these projects,” he later said. Then, in an apparent wink at a rival: “I have no personal agendas. I have no personal gains.”