Candidates for governor break off debate talks

Little chance of future televised meetings

Election 2002

October 09, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Negotiations for debates between Maryland's candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ended yesterday amid finger-pointing by both sides and scant prospects for any statewide televised matchups.

"We tried and tried and tried, and we've gotten no response," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "It's time to move on and go forward with our campaign and our focus on voter turnout."

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., responded: "If they don't want to debate, they don't want to debate."

The breakdown in discussions between the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial campaigns makes it all but certain that - even though there's still a month left until the election - Townsend and Ehrlich won't meet in a live debate on Maryland Public Television, according to the League of Women Voters. Nor will there be any televised matchup between the candidates for lieutenant governor, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson and Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele.

"I'm not going to say it's dead, because if any interest gets renewed by the candidates, we'll do all we can no matter how late it is in the campaign," said Lu Pierson, the league's voter service chairman. "But it appears that the negotiations have come to a standstill.

"It's disappointing for the league because this is what we do, voter education. From a voter standpoint, it's disappointing as well," she said.

The two candidates faced each other in a debate last month at Morgan State University sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But voters around Maryland and aides in both campaigns said the event concentrated so heavily on city issues that there was a need for additional match-ups with more of a statewide focus. They also hoped for a more neutral setting than the Morgan event, at which some in the pro-Townsend crowd repeatedly interrupted Ehrlich.

"The clear loser in this is the voter, and particularly the undecided voter who wants to develop a sense of where individual candidates stand," said Ken Broda-Bahm, a communications professor at Towson University. "I'm not sure the last debate did that.

"Democracy depends on discourse. When we take a step back from that, it's never a positive," he said.

Both campaigns agreed that voters will be the losers, and they blamed each other yesterday for the failure to reach any agreement on debates.

"They seem to hide behind negotiations instead of just agreeing," said Schurick, the Ehrlich spokesman. "We have made it clear that we want to debate as many times as we can this month, and we have made two very specific and very formal proposals for debates that have gone unanswered and ignored."

Peter Hamm, a spokesman for Townsend, said the campaign's negotiators have repeatedly called Ehrlich's campaign aides trying to arrange debates. Townsend had said she wanted one more televised debate. "They should be ashamed of how they treated our overtures to them," Hamm said.

The League of Women Voters was reluctant to fault either campaign yesterday, but Pierson acknowledged that the "Ehrlich campaign people have not responded to our requests."

On Sept. 28, MPT and the league asked both lieutenant governor candidates to participate in a televised debate last Thursday. Larson agreed the next day, but Ehrlich campaign aides said they never received the invitation. Steele then refused, saying he would debate only under "the proper terms."

The Townsend campaign sent a two-page letter to the league Monday night saying it was ending its efforts after not getting responses from the GOP campaign. The letter was written by Timothy F. Maloney, a former state delegate tapped by Townsend to be her debate negotiator.

"Our campaign is at the point where we must invest our time and energy in voter turnout," Maloney wrote. "The Townsend-Larson campaign will now focus its energies in the next four weeks on voter turnout and will not engage in further attempts to communicate with the Ehrlich-Steele campaign about debates."

A Townsend spokesman said the campaign did not want to permit negotiations to drag out so long as to force debates to be held in the final weekend of the campaign - interfering with efforts to mobilize and energize Democratic voters.

"We will not have our efforts to get out our voters stepped on," Hamm said. "We will not continue to call ad infinitum to the other campaign. They can say what they will about this. We feel we have done what is necessary and what is right, and we have gotten nothing from their campaign."

Schurick said he was "unaware of anything that they have sent or phone calls they've made here." He refused to go into the specifics of the negotiations, saying he wanted to abide by an agreement made by the campaigns "not to talk to the press about our conversations and discussions."

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