Excluded candidates cry foul on debate

August 31, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

The trio — The professor, the millionaire and the lobbyist are foes for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate on most days, but they were allies yesterday morning.

The trio - American University professor Allan Lichtman, Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen - held a news conference outside the office of the League of Women Voters of Maryland to demand that they be included in the only live, televised debate in their Senate race, scheduled for tonight.

Then, after calling themselves outsiders, discussing a few of the issues and criticizing the league for hosting just the top-polling candidates - U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman and national NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume - they marched inside to listen to what Lu Pierson, the league's president, had to say.

Her answer hadn't changed. Again, she said no.

She reiterated what she has told them and others: The league chose the criteria for who would be included in the debate a year ago, long before anyone knew who would be running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

It turns out there are 18 seeking the Democratic nomination and nearly a dozen more on the Republican side. Voters will pick the nominee in the Sept. 12 primary.

The threshold for inclusion was set at anyone who was polling 15 percent or more in a major independent poll as of July 1. Only Cardin and Mfume met that requirement.

Lichtman, Rasmussen and Rales say there is room for three more. (Though not necessarily for four. Baltimore activist A. Robert Kaufman said yesterday that he was upset to be excluded by the excluded.)

"The goal should be to fully inform the voters - not predict who's going to win," Lichtman said. "To be so exclusionary in this debate is really a disservice to Maryland."

"A debate gives the public a rare opportunity to assess all the candidates without the filter" of the media, Rales added. "This decision by the League of Women Voters is stifling our democracy. ... Ultimately it is preventing excellent ideas from being heard."

Mfume, at a campaign stop in Baltimore yesterday, said he believes the trio should be on stage with him tonight. "We've been debating when nobody was even looking," he said, referring to several candidates' forums held in recent months. "They've run such good, aggressive and decent campaigns, that I just believe that for the only televised debate in the state, we ought to open it up to a few more candidates. But of course, that's up to the League of Women Voters."

Cardin said he, too, had no role in setting the ground rules but would be happy to spar with opponents beyond Mfume. "I believe in debates," he said.

In 1994, Lichtman noted, if the league's current criteria were in place, then-Del. Ellen Sauerbrey would not have been invited to participate in the televised debate held before the gubernatorial primary. In July of that year, she was polling at 14 percent, but she went on to win the nomination and nearly won the general election.

When the three men had wrapped up their sidewalk protest with handshakes all around, they moved inside the league's cramped headquarters to question Pierson.

Pierson has said that all of the candidates who filed to run for the Senate are invited to a forum sponsored by the league on in Baltimore on Tuesday. It's not on television, so it's just not the same, the candidates complained.

But the snubbed trio all said they plan to be there.

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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