Debates today between candidates, even seasoned candidates, are all but mandatory. A candidate would be open for negative comments for not agreeing to debate. Not showing up creates a powerful image that would not soon be forgotten. I still remember the empty chair from Clint Eastwood’s speech in the summer of 2012 at the RNC Convention in Florida. What would the optics be if there was an empty podium at a debate? Some recent candidates have tried to skip debates. In 1980, President Carter chose not to participate in the first one because independent candidate John Anderson was included. Carter’s opponent, Ronald Reagan, did show up at that debate — and even though Carter appeared at the subsequent debate later that year — Reagan went on to win the election.
In 2008, during the financial crisis, Senator John McCain wanted to postpone the first debate between himself and his opponent, fellow Senator Barack Obama. Senator McCain thought they both needed to be in Washington DC, working together to help solve the crisis. Obama said he would be in Mississippi regardless of whether McCain was (“It’s going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once”).
McCain did come to the debate, but his initial hesitation seemed to throw his campaign off balance.
This brings me to this year’s Republican primary for the 28th House of Delegates between incumbent Delegate Bob Thomas and Challenger Former Chairman and Supervisor Paul Milde.
At the May 13 Stafford Republican Committee there was a lengthy discussion and agreement among the committee members that there needed to be a debate between the candidates to discuss the issues and to get away from the personal attacks and dirty tactics. There have been flyers that go from the mailbox to the trash, that at this point is leaving even those of us political junkies with unsettled stomachs and rolled eyes, the time is now to meet face to face.
Heather Stefl rose at the meeting and told the leadership and committee members that she had reserved the Falmouth Firehouse (free of charge) if they wanted to work with her on getting a debate together. After getting to know her over the years, she is not one to suggest something and then not help to bring it to light, but the local leadership didn’t feel it was right to take on the debate because no formal motion was made or passed during the meeting.
Two days later Heather heard from Price Jett, who had held the last two Republican debates, that he would be more than happy to host this third debate and was very willing to fold Heather into the process, but he could not do June 5th and that he already had the Falmouth Firehouse for June 3rd. In addition to that, both campaigns had already agreed to that date/location/ and time. I wonder who asked Price in the first place to host?
Price and Heather met in downtown Fredericksburg at the end of that week to discuss topics and format. Both agreed that no information, either format or topics, would be discussed. They both took notes as seen here.
Heather and Price left the coffee shop agreeing to meet again Friday, May 24th to begin discussing proceedings, with Heather agreeing to draft a flyer and sending out SAVE THE DATE Facebook event to get people in the Fredericksburg area excited about the upcoming event. Their next meeting was to finalize the debate details and to draft the email of the topics and format to the different candidates.
On Thursday, after Heather sent a note to the local Free Lance-Star (where Price was CCed) and having talked to a reporter and arranging for a photographer to cover the event, things seemed to change. Price notified Heather late Thursday night that he had a work commitment that would prevent his participation in the debate. One can speculate if he even had any intention on having the debate, but now that the media was coming and covering the event he needed to back out.
Heather reassured both candidates that the debate would go on and that she was looking forward to this wonderful opportunity to hear from each of them on the local issues for the voters.
Heather went to the firehouse and tried multiple times to ensure that everything was coordinated with them on having the debate there on June 3rd instead of the 5th but she was not able to get the hall manager on the phone or in person. Wanting to ensure that she did not have to change the scheduled date that was agreed to she did secure an alternate site, still in the district, who graciously offered their atrium for the debate. She then let both campaigns know about a change of location but not a change of date or time. She told both campaigns that general topics would be sent in the next few days because she found out that Price Jett never drafted the letter to the campaigns as he promised her.
The Free Lance-Star then ran a wonderful article Wed May 29 about the upcoming debate. It remained in the print version but somehow someone managed to call the paper to have the online version removed.
At 3:30 pm, before the reporter’s afternoon deadline, Heather heard from the reporter who was going to cover the story. They received a press release from the Thomas campaign that they would not be participating because “the location had changed” Now the media will not be attending with only one candidate. Why would the Free Lance-Star not want to cover a story about a candidate, who had all his demands met (including now even the location he wanted) not report a no show for a political debate?
Heather, wanting to ensure that the demands of the Thomas campaign were met, reached out to the firehouse one last time. After finally getting the hall manager, it turned out that Price had never reserved the firehouse in the first place. Now to make the Thomas campaign happy she was able to secure the hall and told both campaigns at the same time and the Freelance Star reporter that the original agreed upon location/date/ and time was now a go and she was really excited to have both of them at the hall on June 3rd. It was the reporter, not the Thomas campaign, that informed Heather, now the host of the debate, that he will not participate in the debate. All his demands were met, the only thing she would not do is provide the exact questions to either camp.
Now I ask you why, after all the effort put in by this hardworking local state party leader, do the two local Republican committees and Delegate Thomas still not want to participate in the debate? Is he running from his record, or is there something else he does not want to answer?
I will be there and I know it will be on Facebook live for those who can’t be there.