Washington, CT


Republicans Back Out of Selectman Debate

[Sept. 26, 2011] After initially agreeing to a debate among the candidates for Board of Selectmen (BOS), Republicans have done a 180 and now refuse to debate.

“We don’t know why the Republicans suddenly bailed out,” commented WDTC Co-Chair Andy Shapiro. “All I know is, our candidates will be at Town Hall, at 7 PM sharp, on Tuesday, October 11, ready to debate—even if they have to debate two empty chairs marked ‘Mark Lyon’ and ‘Dick Carey.’”

Debate Details Worked Out

Back in August, Kerry O’Toole, WDTC Co-Chair, suggested to her Republican counterpart, WRTC Chair Joan Lodsin that the two committees work together toward planning a fall debate for Board of Selectmen candidates. Lodsin quickly agreed.

On September 6, Lodsin, called O’Toole and proposed that all four BOS candidates should debate at Town Hall on a weekday evening in mid-October. Lodsin specified that the doors should open around 6:30 PM to give audience members time to write down questions for the candidates to answer. The proposal was that a debate moderator would determine which questions to ask, and the debate itself would start at 7:00 PM.

The WDTC agreed to all of her specifications except one—the choice of moderator—and the date of the debate was set for Tuesday, October 11 at 7:00 PM in Town Hall.

Impasse Over Moderator ‘Impartiality’

For moderator, the Republicans favored a journalist who happens not to live in Washington; while the Democrats preferred a local civic leader (a Republican, incidentally), who lives in Town and has frequently moderated town meetings in the past. The WRTC acknowledged that the Democrats’ choice for moderator “[knows] the town, the people and the issues.” That kind of familiarity with local issues, however, was viewed as a negative by the Republicans:

“We do not think that these are the qualities for a moderator of a debate. The moderator, in our opinion, needs to be completely impartial and no resident of this town can be that.”

Republican ‘Bolt from the Blue’

Things hung in limbo until after the full WRTC met on September 20. A few days later, Lodsin caught the Democrats completely off guard with a surprise email. It said nothing one way or the other about the sole unresolved debate issue—choice of moderator—and, instead, floated an entirely new idea.

The Republicans now proposed that BOS candidates write statements of their positions on six key campaign issues. These position papers would then be published in local newspapers—a so-called “newspaper forum”—and would be “preferable to verbal debates.”

“Like a bolt from the blue,” groused Shapiro, “comes this totally new idea that had never even been broached before. It’s like the Republicans were saying ‘Never mind!’ to all the weeks we’d spent settling up on all the debate details—date, time, place, participants, Q & A format. The only thing the email didn’t cover was the one piece of missing information that we Democrats had been waiting two weeks for: who will the moderator be?”

‘In Lieu of a Debate…’

Refusing to roll over and change the subject—as Republicans seemed to want—the Democrats spied a silver lining in Lodsin's otherwise disturbing email. The Republicans had not flatly ruled out a debate. They said only that written statements would be “preferable to verbal debates.” (Like JFK during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Democrats decided to pursue this optimistic reading of an otherwise grim message.)

The WDTC’s co-chairs asked to meet with WRTC Chair Joan Lodsin. While not rejecting the “newspaper forum” idea, they said that they really wanted to continue finalizing plans for the debate.

Lodsin’s one-line reply shot down that hope: “I would be willing to meet but the written statements would be in lieu of a debate.”

Press Release Quotes Mark Lyon

On September 25, the Republicans emailed a press release to local newspapers. Basically, it rehearsed the substance of Lodsin’s last email to the WDTC—only now it quoted Mark Lyon as the authoritative source of the “newspaper forum” idea.

The release went on: “Lodsin explained that her Committee had made its proposal for a written forum in place of a verbal debate proposed by the Democratic Town Committee. She also cited debate scheduling, formatting, and participant disagreements between the committees. She added that there had been no clear answer from the Democrats to the Republicans' latest proposal.”

‘Clear Answer from the Democrats…’

There were no disagreements over “scheduling, formatting, and participant[s]”—only the unresolved moderator issue. And as for no clear answer, here’s one: We Democrats want what the voters of Washington want and deserve—a debate. Whatever its merits, the “newspaper forum” idea is no substitute for a debate and, in several important ways, is inferior to it:

[1] Candidate debates are as American as apple pie. Just flip on the TV and watch Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachman debating each other for the Republican presidential nomination. In Washington, BOS debates have been a tradition for ten years, ever since Elaine Luckey debated Dick Dutton in 2001. Voters here have right to expect their elected officials to step up to the podium and debate challengers when there’s an election ahead.

[2] A debate is real. It captures the independent conviction of individuals speaking out for themselves. It facilitates the spontaneous exchange of ideas and permits both those ideas and their proponents to be challenged and probed in public.

[3] A debate empowers voters. It lets them ask the questions they want answered—not the safer issues that candidates might prefer to address in some controlled setting like a “newspaper forum” or a press release.

[4] Published position statements are too ‘packaged.’ No one wants to wade through some printed statement that is the product of group-think, polished by a committee of wordsmiths. It’s all just spin.

[5] Published statements are expensive. Campaigns have limited funds to spend on flyers, postage, lawn signs, rallies, etc. If the Republicans want to spend money on ad space in newspapers to carry long position statements, they are free to do so. The Democrats have better things to spend their money on—especially when you consider that articles like this one (not to mention our platform, mission statement, etc.) come to you via the Internet at no cost.

'Empty Chair Debate' of 2011?

At the end of the day, despite what the WRTC has announced in its press release, it is inconceivable to Washington Democrats that, in 21st century America, an elected government official will actually refuse to stand up in Town Hall before his constituents and debate the issues with the official nominee of the opposing party.

Washington Democrats ask that Republicans change their current tack and do right by Washington’s townspeople. So high is our hope that they will see the light and do so, that the WDTC has rented the Washington Town Hall for Tuesday night, October 11, 2011. At 7:00 PM, our candidates, Wayne Hileman and Susan Luckett Jahnke will be there, ready to go. Messrs. Lyon and Carey, don’t turn this into the “Empty Chair Debate of 2011.”