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Vol. LXV, No. 39
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
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Linda Mather Is the Voice of Moderation At Local Debates and Community Forums

Anne Levin

At last week’s debate between Princeton Borough mayoral candidates Yina Moore and Jill Jachera, a veteran moderator was running the show. The soothing, yet authoritative voice of Linda Mather is familiar to anyone who has attended candidates’ forums for local government or school board elections for the past two decades. Ms. Mather has officiated at countless local events since becoming active in the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debate at the Jewish Center of Princeton on Tuesday, September 20.

“What I found most interesting was the number of people who came,” said Ms. Mather last week. “The last count I heard was 150, and we in the League found that very significant. People are acting on their interest.”

It was a desire for stimulating conversation that first brought Ms. Mather to the League in 1972. Raised in Bergen County, she was living in Glassboro with her husband and teaching at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). “I was newly married and looking for intelligent women, and the League was the place to find them,” she recalled. “I remember the first meeting I attended was on income tax. I left understanding taxes in a way that completely changed my opinion. And that’s one of the things that has kept me very involved. I’m always learning something.”

Ms. Mather, who has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and a master’s degree in English from Purdue University, moved with her husband to Princeton Township in 1985. She was president of the League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area from 1987 to 1991, the first to serve two consecutive terms. She founded her own firm, Beacon Consulting Associates, in 1993. Her work as a professional facilitator specializes in group dynamics, facilitation, and leadership, valuable expertise for keeping things in line at political forums.

“I think being a moderator takes a combination of preparation, attention to detail, and keeping your goal in mind, which is to be fair to all the players. And that’s not easy,” she said. “You have to be fair to the candidates, to the audience, and to the entire process.”

These days, Ms. Mather pays particular attention to the use of electronics, specifically where someone in the audience might be texting an answer to a candidate during a debate. “It hasn’t happened yet in Princeton, not on my watch, thankfully,” she said. “But I have to know how to handle it if it does happen.”

Last week’s event was more of a forum than a debate. Ms. Jachera, who is the first Republican candidate to run for Borough Mayor in 12 years; and Ms. Moore, who is a Democrat, were read questions by Ms. Mather that had been submitted by audience members. Each one responded, but no actual debate took place.

“This kind of thing is an opportunity for people to learn about the candidates’ views and a chance for the candidates to clarify their views,” Ms. Mather said. “It’s not a rally. Put away the banners and the placards. And it is also about listening, not just talking. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to make that switch.”

Her challenge as a moderator, as she sees it, is to be firm, yet flexible. “You’ve got to balance the needs of the candidates and the audience,” she said. “And as long as you’re doing that, then it’s okay. One of the things I say to the candidates is, ‘I’m here to protect you. I’m not going to give you a zinger question.’ “

Written questions work well, Ms. Mather said, but she acknowledges that they might provide a kind of distancing between the candidates and the audience. “It provides for a variability in questions,” she said.” And it is a way of indirectly taking out the questions that aren’t appropriate. I really try to make them questions that both of them can answer. So the written thing gives me an opportunity to order and filter the questions.”

Avoiding conflict is a major goal. As president of a non-profit organization, the Forums Institute for Public Policy, for 10 years, Ms. Mather helped develop an approach to discussions and the exchange of ideas among public policy decision makers. “I’ve taken training in conflict management, and I know that you start with common ground and move from there,” she said. “I find it much more productive that way.”

Judging from turnout at the debate last week, Ms. Mather is hopeful that residents will continue to show interest at future forums, and ultimately, at the polls on November 8. “There seems to be an interest in the governing of the Borough, and a renewed interest in consolidation,” she said. “We’ll see.”

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