Categorized | Election 08, Debates

Local Cafe Opens Doors for Debate


A small crowd of locals gathered at Raphael’s Café in El Cerrito to watch Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama clash on issues of the economy, tax cuts, and foreign policy during a town hall presidential debate on Tuesday night. For the spectators at the café, the repetitive nature of the debate was disappointing.

Raphael’s regular Kenneth Joseph thought the debate seemed more like a publicity stunt.

“I have a problem calling it a debate. They should call it a joint appearance instead,” Joseph said.

For the audience at Raphael’s, the town hall format was a chance to see how its candidates would hold up in that setting.

Rob Katzenstein, a solar energy project manager, thought that part of the problem was the town hall-style debate that let the audience ask questions, but didn’t allow any follow up.

“The format was weak,” Katzenstein said. “Both used it to preach their doctrine and didn’t focus on the questions.”

Obama and McCain often repeated the same policies that they talked about in the first debate, but without adding many specifics. McCain talked once more about cutting government spending and not raising taxes. Meanwhile, Obama elaborated on his middle-class tax cuts and discussed restoring America’s standing. Both candidates stuck to their strategies of attack: McCain painting his opponent as naïve and unprepared, while Obama continued to link McCain to the failures of the Bush administration.

Raphael’s owner and chef Otis Timmons was hoping the format would lead to some surprises from the candidates.

“I thought it would bring about a different side of McCain,” he said. “But he was the same old guy with the same old lies.”

Timmons normally closes the café at 2 p.m., but when he heard many people were turned away from the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater next door, he decided to keep his doors open.

“I was going to watch the debates anyway, so I thought we might as well watch them here,” he said.

Katzenstein said he believes that McCain is misleading the public about his energy policy. He said that McCain has indeed voted many times against alternative energy.

“The record speaks for itself: McCain is just jumping on the renewable energy bandwagon,” Katzenstein said.

For Joseph, who was born in Panama but is now an U.S. citizen, he hopes that Obama will fulfill his promise to restore the country’s standing in the world if he becomes president.

“I have a vital interest in this election,” he said. “Because every time I leave this country, the last thing I want people to know is that I’m an American citizen.”

Timmons hopes that for the last debate, the candidates will provide specifics instead of rhetoric. He said that he’s frustrated with the candidates’ strategy and hopes that they will give people more.

“They just kept repeating, repeating, repeating,” Timmons said

Raphael’s has been an El Cerrito eatery for more than 25 years. It is a place where the staff greets customers with hugs and handshakes. Katzenstein admits he came to the café to watch the debate because “Otis can make a mean omelet.”

The café had a limited staff tonight: Just Timmons and his son Raphael. Occasionally, someone would order a sandwich or an omelet, but most of the time, work was at a standstill and everyone’s attention was focused on the debate.

Raphael’s Café will stay open late once more for the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday, Oct. 15. The debate will be held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and will focus on the economy and domestic policy.

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