The Debate Over Debates
By Craig Manning | Oct. 11, 2018
Are political debates a bare necessity for elected officials? Or are they agenda-driven wastes of time? Debates are under heavy debate this week after several local candidates opted not to attend events held by the League of Women Voters of the Grand Traverse Area (LWV).
On Monday evening, the LWV held a forum featuring candidates for the Grand Traverse County Commission. Six Republicans running for commissioner seats – Dan Lathrop, Matthew Schoech, Brad Jewett, Ron Clous, Gordie LaPointe, and Rob Hentschel – opted not to participate in the forum, citing recent activities of Virginia Kase, CEO of the national LWV. Kase was arrested last week for civil disobedience during a protest at the U.S. Capitol against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Republican Sonny Wheelock Jr. did attend).
According to Hentschel, the exodus of Republican candidates from the LWV forum began when LaPointe emailed the organization’s local chapter to say he would not be attending. Hentschel read a few articles about Kase’s arrest and then reached out to the other Republicans on the ballot.
“I called up the other candidates, just to see what they were thinking,” Hentschel says. “We all agreed with Gordie that [the LWV] wasn’t the type of place where we could expect an unbiased forum. More importantly, this is an organization that’s embracing breaking the law right now.”
Hentschel says that he has had positive experiences with the LWV in the past, and that the organization “has historically been very good at staying non-partisan.” However, when Hentschel and his fellow candidates spoke up about their concerns, he says that the local chapter did nothing to distance itself from Kase’s “partisan activity.” “They seemed to really embrace what the national leaders were doing,” he says.
According to Jan Warren, president of the local LWV chapter, the Republican county commission candidates “mixed up” two different sides of the organization. “What they don’t understand is that the league’s mission is twofold: defending democracy and empowering voters,” she says.
Warren continues: “What these candidates did is they mixed up our education role with our advocacy role. Our advocacy role makes us a political organization. But we are always, in terms of our educational role, non-partisan. We never support or oppose a candidate for public office. Judge Kavanaugh was not a candidate for public office.”
The Republican candidates ended up holding their own informal forum at Horizon Books – a format Hentschel thought would give voters “better access” to the candidates and foster more “open and honest conversation.” The forum at the LWV also went ahead, featuring non-Republican candidates for the commission.
Before the commissioner forum was even on the schedule, the LWV had planned to hold a different forum on Monday evening, this one featuring the candidates for the 104th District State Representative seat. Both Dan O’Neil (D) and incumbent Larry Inman (R) had agreed to participate in the event. Several weeks ago, though, Inman contacted the LWV saying he would not be able to attend.
Warren says she asked the Inman campaign to provide alternative dates, but was told he would be “too busy” to participate in any forum.
“As a person who stands to run for office, you have an obligation to stand in front of voters and explain your positions,” says Inman’s challenger Dan O’Neil. “Voters have a right to expect that from candidates and certainly from their elected officials. Mailers and ads are not a substitute for an unfiltered, honest conversation with voters.”
Despite O’Neil’s insistence, there is evidence to suggest that candidates – incumbents in particular – view such events as risky. According to Bill Ballenger, Michigan political insider and founder of The Ballenger Report, skipping forums and debates has become an increasingly common strategic move for candidates throughout Michigan. A big reason, he says, is social media, which can magnify a flubbed comment to such a degree that it permanently damages a politician’s career.
“Anything they say could be taken out of context, and a genuine mistake will go way beyond that room,” Ballenger says. “It will be viral and all over the world. The candidates realize that could haunt them forever. If you’re an incumbent with high name ID, you could argue you have nothing to gain and almost everything to lose. And that factor can be true for either party.”
In an emailed statement to The Ticker, Inman’s Campaign Manager Ashleigh Ackerman gave assurances that there was no political motivation behind the incumbent’s decision not to attend the LWV forum. Ackerman says Inman had a meeting scheduled in Lansing on October 8 to work on the water infrastructure bill he introduced earlier this year.
“I had spoken [with the LWV] to let them know of the issue we had with the scheduling,” she says. “I told them I would do my best to reschedule our meeting in Lansing, but I wanted to manage their expectations that I wasn’t very confident we’d be able to reschedule, as we had previously rescheduled with this party before.”
According to Ackerman, she never told the LWV that Inman was “too busy” to do the forum on a different date. She also admits she didn’t explicitly say that he would be willing to reschedule.
Ackerman says the Inman campaign reached out to several neutral organizations, including the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, to see if one could host a forum. “None were able to accommodate us this year,” she says.
Pictured above: Top: Inman. Bottom (l-r): Hentschel, O'Neil.