A national broadcast journalist who spent the early part of his career in Rochester—and who still regards Rochester as a “great community”—will moderate the second presidential debate, slated for Oct. 15.
The unruly first debate, which took place Tuesday night, suggests he could have his hands full.
Steve Scully, senior executive producer and political editor for the C-SPAN television network, will moderate a town hall debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Also a regular host of C-SPAN’s morning call-in show, “Washington Journal,” Scully is a past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
But back in the late 1980s, Scully was known to Rochesterians for his work as an on-air reporter at WHEC-TV 10.
‘Steve is the perfect person to moderate a presidential debate and has dedicated himself and his career for just this moment,” says Rebecca LeClair, former WHEC anchor who worked with Scully. “He is methodical in his movements, precise in his speech and determined to give perspective whenever possible. Those of us who worked with Steve are proud of the role he plays at C-SPAN and we are proud to have covered Rochester news with him.”
Recently, I spoke by phone with Scully about his time in Rochester and about the upcoming debate. An edited transcript of our conversation appears below. But first, some background on Scully and his time in Rochester.
Scully grew up in Erie, Pa., and began his broadcast news career at a CBS affiliate there. After several years, he was invited to interview for a position in Rochester at WHEC.
“I drove up to Rochester from Erie to interview with (news director) Steve Hammel,” Scully recalls. “Channel 10 seemed to have so much more to offer in terms of larger staff, live shots, bigger market, and I just fell in love with Rochester. I started in June of 1986 and stayed four years.”
At that time, Channel 10 was a CBS affiliate. It later switched to NBC.
Scully’s news beat in Rochester included weather stories—”because that’s always a big part of Rochester,” he mused—business stories, including delays in construction of the downtown Hyatt hotel when developer Paul Snyder abandoned the project, as well as management changes at Kodak; the election of Louis Slaughter to Congress in 1986; and a series on how high taxes were driving businesses out of Upstate New York.
“Kodak, politics, and the weather—those were the big stories,” he says.
Reflecting on his time here, Scully says, “I was still young, had a lot to learn and I really loved working with (anchors) Gabe Dalmath and Janet Lomax. They were just incredible mentors to me. They really helped me with my writing craft. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years since Gabe passed away. And I remember fondly so many great colleagues, like Rich Funke, Rebecca LeClair, Donna Dedee, Laura Saxby, Maggie Brooks, Warren White and Ray Levato. I would not be where I am today without the training and opportunities I had at WHEC.”
Scully’s first home in Rochester was at Rustic Village Apartments in Brighton. Later, he and his wife, Kathryn Scully, a nurse at Rochester General, moved to a townhouse in Fairport. They both often worked a 3-to-11 shift, which gave them time to enjoy the city in the mornings.
“Some days we’d get up early,” recalls Scully, “play nine holes of golf, have lunch and then get off to work.”
He also taught morning classes on news writing and on politics and the media at Nazareth and St. John Fisher colleges.
“We both loved living in Rochester,” he says. “We really felt part of the community. There was such a vibrancy to the culture.”
In particular, he mentions the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and many places to dine.
“Rochester really has phenomenal restaurants,” he says.
Favorites included the Northside Inn and two others now closed: Daisy Flour Mill and Mario’s Italian Steakhouse.
“And you can’t work in Rochester and not go to the Distillery—we did that probably every Friday night. And, of course, Timothy Patrick’s. I know they’re still in business because I was just there.
“To me, Rochester is like the perfect community,” says Scully, “because you have everything a big city has without the traffic and congestion. And yet it really has that small-town appeal. I mean, people are incredibly nice. They’re warm. Not being from there, I very quickly felt at home. From the moment I walked into that TV station for a job interview until the moment I left after spending four years there I just felt this is a great place. And it really is.”
As it happened, the day on which I spoke by phone with Scully was his 60th birthday.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, let me start by wishing you a very happy birthday!
STEVE SCULLY: Yes, thank you. You can congratulate not only me but the U.S. Constitution and Chuck Grassley. (Note: I had to look these up, but on Sept. 17, 1787, members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the Constitution. Charles Grassley, the senior U.S. senator from Iowa, also was born on Sept. 17.)
ROCHESTER BEACON: Before we get to the debates, I want to say that Rochester’s going through some difficult times just now. Have you kept up on that story?
SCULLY: Yes, and it’s a shame. It’s been heartbreaking to see what’s been going on. What’s ironic are the similarities between what happened in March with Daniel Prude and what happened in May with George Floyd—there are differences, but also similarities. And I think it’s emblematic of where the country is right now: We just have such deep divisions and these recent events have clearly opened up an old wound that has resurfaced on so many different levels.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Let’s talk about the debates. The debate you’ll moderate is going to be a town hall. Is that a format you prefer?
SCULLY: In many ways it’s what we do every day at C-SPAN. Every morning, 365 days a year, we open our phone lines and for three hours we hear from America. We listen to Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives, and we bring public officials, journalists, experts and other newsmakers to our network and field questions from the public. With the town hall format, participants will likely ask very different questions than a journalist would ask. So yes, I feel very comfortable in the town hall meeting format.
And I think that the way the Commission (on Presidential Debates) has set it up, where you have Chris Wallace doing the first debate (Tuesday, Sept. 29), then the town hall format, and then my friend Kristen Welker of NBC news doing the third debate (Thursday, Oct. 22), I think the country will get a real good sense of who the candidates are.
ROCHESTER BEACON: I understand you’ll have 30 undecided voters. Is that right?
SCULLY: That’s correct. I would say approximately 30 and maybe a little bit more. They’re still in the process of determining that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, I’m just a little skeptical: How do they validate that people are really undecided and not just trying to get in there to push their views?
SCULLY: Well, they’ve done this now since 1992, and they have a really good track record. The Gallup organization is going to vet these people to make sure that they’re undecided. And obviously you want to make sure that it’s a cross section of America. Because of coronavirus, I know that it’s going to be a smaller number—just because they want to be very careful. But if you look at the past town hall meetings, they’ve all been engaging and included topics that, as I put it: What are the questions that Americans at home are asking themselves tonight? And hopefully these people—and I have no idea who they are, I won’t meet them until the day of the debate—but I really do think they will ask the questions that I think most Americans will be asking as they prepare to vote.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do these two candidates pose any special challenges to you as a facilitator?
SCULLY: I’m going to pass on that only because I don’t want to say one way or the other.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Fair enough, but I am curious: How do you deal with the pressure of the entire country watching you?
SCULLY: I grew up in a very large family. I’m the 14th out of 16, so I’ve been used to older brothers and sisters and putting me in my place. But ask me the day of—I’m really excited about it and hopeful I’ll perform well, but the audience will be the judge of that, of whether I do well or not. I’m going in just with the expectation that we’re going to have a conversation. My focus will be on the room, the candidates and the questions from the audience, and take it from there.
ROCHESTER BEACON: And just for yourself, Steve, how will you measure success of that evening?
SCULLY: Did we learn something new about the candidates? Did we feel that the American public along with those in the room had a chance to engage with the candidates? Did we have a conversation? To me, that would be a measure of success. And I want to make sure that we are absolutely fair to both candidates, that they have the same amount of time, that they’re able to engage with each other and that the people in the room are able to ask a question and, if necessary, maybe a follow up. So, that to me will be my level of success.
ROCHESTER BEACON: OK, last question. What have you got planned to celebrate your big birthday today?
SCULLY: Well, I’ve got a four great kids, including a daughter, who’s a Navy pilot. We’re going to have a Zoom call and then dinner tomorrow night when we all can get together. And I’m going to watch the town hall meeting with Joe Biden at CNN. So that’s how I’m going to celebrate tonight, but we’ll make it a birthday weekend, not just one day.
ROCHESTER BEACON: All right. Happy Birthday and thank you so much for your time today.
SCULLY: Thank you, absolutely. I love Rochester and I truly mean that. I could move back if I had the right opportunities. It’s a great community.