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The four candidates for Corvallis mayor face off in a campaign forum today in what amounts to the official start of the local election season. (Yes, we know there was a forum with local candidates in late August, but that was before Labor Day, so we'll call that the unofficial start of the season.)

(Today's session, by the way, starts at noon at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis, 1112 NW Circle Blvd. and is sponsored by the City Club of Corvallis. It will feature incumbent Mayor Biff Traber, Ward 2 Councilor Roen Hogg, retired community volunteer Dean Codo and Riley Doraine, a prep cook and dishwasher at The Peacock.)

The city candidates are at the start of a grueling grind of campaign forums and appearances that will consume untold hours right up to the Nov. 6 election. For the candidates for the Benton County Board of Commissioners, the general election season represents the resumption of a gantlet that started before the May primary election.

And it comes at a time when Corvallis residents appear to be deeply divided over the question of how best to deal with the city's growing population of homeless people. It's a sure bet that homelessness will be one of the critical issues — possibly the critical issue — in this year's local elections.

It's also an issue that gets people's hearts pumping, that prompts real passion among citizens. It wouldn't be surprising if that passion spilled over into these local races. 

That in itself wouldn't be a bad thing. But sometimes it can be too easy for that passion to curdle into something nastier and meaner. Already in this year's election campaign, handbills have appeared in Corvallis with a photograph of a City Council candidate doctored to make it look as if there's a swastika on the candidate's forehead. 

If we say we value civil discourse in Corvallis, shouldn't that be reflected in the tenor of our political campaigns? If we want, for example, a rational and thoughtful City Council, shouldn't we expect the same qualities from our candidates and their supporters? 

Have we not already witnessed enough of the corrosive effects of today's poisonous national political discourse? If we believe there's a way to rise above all that, what better place to do it than right here and now, right in this community?

None of this is to say that can't ask tough and probing questions of our candidates, that we can't examine their records, can't ask challenging followups if an answer seems too vague. We need to know what our candidates think about the best approaches to attack homelessness, and a host of other issues as well: How to strike the correct balance between government services and the taxes we pay for those services, to name just one example.

But surely we can ask these hard questions in a respectful and civil manner. It's probably too much to think that Corvallis' civic elections this fall can serve as an example for the rest of the nation, but why not comport ourselves as if they could be?

One other thought about the local elections before the campaign season really swings into high gear, and this applies primarily to the city candidates, who are running for positions that amount to exceptionally challenging volunteer gigs. (The county commissioners, by contrast, are paid: A first-term commissioner will receive an annual salary of $85,668.)

Of course, the county commission posts are full-time jobs. But anyone who's served as Corvallis mayor or on the City Council will tell you that those positions amount to part-time (and essentially unpaid) jobs. Nobody is running for the City Councilor to be mayor of Corvallis to collect a paycheck. 

So fire away with the tough questions. But after the last question has been asked, as the crowds are filing out of the hot and stuffy rooms where these campaign forums invariably are held, slide up to the candidates and offer a word of thanks. (mm)

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