Some candidates calling for more debates
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Voters will get a few opportunities to see West Virginia candidates debate this year - but not enough, said some of the challengers hoping to unseat incumbents.
Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican challenger Bill Maloney have one public debate scheduled. That's the West Virginia Broadcasters Association debate on Oct. 9.
The debate will air on TV stations across the state, as well as on stations in Steubenville, Ohio, and Hagerstown, Md., which both have significant West Virginia audiences, said Michele Crist, association executive director.
Both the Maloney and Tomblin campaigns said they pushed for the inclusion of Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson.
Crist said the association is producing a news event as it always has and is not including Johnson.
She said time quickly adds up. With time for questions and time split between the two candidates, she said voters would hear from each candidate for only about 20 minutes apiece.
"It sounds like an hour is a long time - it's not," Crist said.
Johnson decried the decision, as he has done during past runs for governor when he was excluded from debates.
"I think that it's really against everything that the press should be about, and the Broadcasters Association presents itself as the press," Johnson said Wednesday.
"I think it is basically endorsing two out of the three major parties, and it is an illegal campaign contribution, in-kind, to two of the competitors who share almost identical views on almost everything."
Maloney sent the association a letter in early August seeking to include Johnson.
"While I don't necessarily agree with his views, I believe that Mr. Johnson and the Mountain Party bring a unique viewpoint to the political discourse in West Virginia," Maloney said in the letter.
Tomblin campaign spokesman Chris Stadelman said the Tomblin campaign also verbally requested Johnson be allowed.
Former TV personality and public relations executive Charles Ryan will moderate the broadcasters' debate.
Crist said it was hard for stations to agree on a working broadcast journalist to moderate the debate. That's because stations would have to air a debate hosted by a competing station's journalist. Last year, MetroNews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval moderated the Tomblin-Maloney special election debate.
This week, the Maloney campaign accused Tomblin of dodging two additional debates in the Eastern and Northern panhandles.
The Tomblin campaign said the broadcasters' debate would be available widely on TV and radio.
In the attorney general's race, Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey has repeatedly challenged incumbent Democrat Darrell McGraw to debates. At one point, Morrisey wanted 55 debates - one in each county.
"I don't get into debates about how to enforce the law," McGraw told the Daily Mail last week.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Republican John Raese are set to debate on Oct. 2 in Shepherdstown, according to the Raese campaign.
Earlier this month, Kent Leonhardt, Republican candidate for state commissioner of agriculture, challenged Democrat competitor Walt Helmick to a telephone debate.
The call was open to reporters around the state, who were invited to listen in and ask questions. Helmick did not phone in, however.
The phone debate was the Leonhardt campaign's latest request for a public forum with Helmick. According to a campaign press release, Leonhardt sent three letters and even called Helmick directly, trying to set up a debate.
"He's making it very clear he does not want to talk about the issues," Leonhardt told the Daily Mail.
He said he appeared at a few events with Helmick during the primary campaign, when Helmick was still seeking the Democrat nomination for agriculture commissioner.
Leonhardt said those forums received no publicity, there were never more than 100 people in attendance and no members of the press showed up to cover them. He said he doubts anyone remembers what any of the candidates said.
"It never got widespread coverage in the media," he said.
Leonhardt wants to appear at an open public forum with a live audience and a moderator.
"The public needs to hear the views of both candidates to make an informed decision. That's what free press and democracy is all about. The public has a right to know who they are voting for, not just on name recognition," he said.
"I think he's afraid of me. I wouldn't want to debate me either. He's not qualified to be commissioner of agriculture. He's not a practical farmer, he doesn't have an agricultural degree," Leonhardt said.
State law says the agriculture commissioner should be a "practical farmer" and have made agriculture his or her chief business for 10 years before being elected. Helmick raises neither livestock nor crops but runs a water bottling operation from his Pocahontas County property.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled earlier this year the "practical farmer" requirement is unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Helmick spokesman Tom Susman said his candidate would not appear at any Leonhardt-scheduled events.
"The Republicans are not going to set Sen. Helmick's schedule," he said.
Susman said there would be multiple forums - chamber of commerce meetings, community meet-the candidate events, newspaper editorial board meetings - where he and Leonhardt will appear together.
"Anybody who's been around these things knows there are numerous occasions (to appear)," he said.
Susman compared Leonhardt's proposed phone debate to President Obama inviting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to square off at the Democratic National Convention.
He pointed out the debate's moderator, radio host and former Bluefield mayor Craig Hammond, was at one time chairman of the West Virginia Young Republicans.
Susman said the Leonhardt campaign's repeated requests for debates are a diversion.
"Instead of talking about job creation and agriculture, instead of talking about how we're going to advocate farmers . . . (and how to) protect the food stream, it's easier to talk about, are we going to have a debate," he said.
Leonhardt said the telephone debate would have been fair to both sides. His campaign was going to let reporters ask anything they wanted, with no questions prepared ahead of time.
Howard Swint, a Democrat trying to nab Rep. Shelly Moore Capito's Second District seat in Congress, said he has repeatedly asked the Republican's campaign for a debate. So far, he hasn't received a response.
Swint and Capito met with the Daily Mail editorial board Monday. Following the meeting, Swint challenged Capito to a debate.
"It wasn't 'yes,' " he said.
He said he would debate Capito "any place, any time," but University of Charleston President Ed Welch already has offered to facilitate a debate for the congressional candidates.
Swint may get his wish.
Capito campaign spokesman Kent Gates said the congresswoman would be happy to participate in a debate, as long as the event fits her schedule, is sponsored by a "responsible third party" and would provide "a productive discussion of issues the voters care about."
"The congresswoman has always debated in the past. We evaluate every request that comes in," Gates said.