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Saturday, Oct 06 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: An imperfect solution? I'm afraid it was

By The Bakersfield Californian

Anyone can have his own local radio show, apparently, because for the past year and a half I've hosted one. It's a humble affair, really -- just an hour every Tuesday morning, made possible only because KERN-AM 1180 surrounds me (and my newspaper colleagues who handle the other four days of the workweek) with radio types who actually know what they're doing.

Lining up guests can be a challenge, but it's not all that difficult in the weeks before a big election. I've been bringing in candidates for the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Bakersfield City Council, among others. Most are happy for the opportunity to give listeners their spiel for 20 minutes or so. I am compelled to play by only one rule: equal time. If one candidate in a given race gets a turn behind the microphone, his or her opponents must be offered turns, too.

It was with this in mind, a few weeks ago, that I kicked around the special circumstance that is David Mensch.

Mensch is the guy you'd like to be if you were dealt the cards he was dealt. Mensch, who is 52, has a debilitating case of cerebral palsy, but if he has ever allowed himself a moment of self-pity it's not evident. He is a model and a mentor to others with cerebral palsy and similar afflictions, and he's not afraid to break a sweat reinforcing those credentials.

Earlier this year, he and his motorized wheelchair trekked 340 back-road miles to Sacramento alongside his son (who rode a bicycle) in order to make a point about the vital services that taxpayers help provide California's disabled -- and the folly of cutting those services too deeply or too rashly.

Now Mensch is one of three candidates for the Bakersfield City Council's Ward 2 seat -- a position that becomes vacant with Sue Benham's retirement from city government following 12 years of service.

Mensch's opponents, Elliott Kirschenmann and Terry Maxwell, each took a turn in the studio, but I was at a bit of a loss with Mensch: His CP renders his speech difficult to understand. On live radio, that would prove deadly. I hit upon a solution: We'd bring him in along with two of his biggest supporters, Roman and Susan Lara, who could both interpret Mensch's words and offer their own appraisal of his virtues and limitations. I would also provide Mensch with a few questions in advance and he would (painstakingly) type answers into a computer that could speak in an inflection-challenged robotic voice. We'd record the whole thing, edit it down and present listeners with a profile that roughly approximated in length what his opponents had been permitted to present a couple of weeks before.

It was a nice show. If only things had gone as smoothly in my real job.

Every election season, The Californian's editorial board interviews candidates for political office for the purpose of making endorsements. When it was time to consider the Ward 2 race, I invited Kirschenmann and Maxwell, but not sure how we could fairly and efficiently consider Mensch's candidacy, I waffled. I would come up with an alternative plan later. But reporter Antonie Boessenkool's news article on the Kirschenmann-Maxwell meeting was published before I could devise a plan; four days later, another editor and I hastily arranged the question-and-answer format news article on Mensch that was published Oct. 2.

That might seem like an equitable solution, but it bugged me. Still does. I believe Mensch deserved treatment as equal as we could manage under the circumstances. I still don't know what that treatment might have been. Perhaps it should have been three candidates and an interpreter in the same room at the same time.

If you wonder how Mensch could realistically serve as a city councilman when his ability to verbally communicate is, through no fault of his, severely limited, you ask a fair question. The wise-guy answer is that over the past few decades Bakersfield has abided council members with other, more serious afflictions -- vanity, irritability and incompetence to name three. Few, if any, have had Mensch's passion to rise above such daunting personal challenges in the service of community. You would think that deserved a special accommodation or two.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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