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What's Not Debatable?

We Need an Erie County Debate Commission for Local Elections

Debates between candidates competing for public office are an important part of democracy. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as candidates to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate held a series of seven debates across the state. The first televised general election debate for U.S. President was held in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

From 1976 until 1987 the League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates. In 1987 the League of Women withdrew as the sponsor of presidential debates. When the presidential candidates (Bush and Dukakis) negotiated behind closed doors an agreement that sought to control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues, the League of Women refused to participate stating that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

With the League of Women Voters out of the way the Democratic and Republican parties took control of the debates by forming the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission established as a non-profit organization has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Third party and independent candidates for the most part have been excluded from participating in presidential debates.

Debate About Debates

In just about every election there seems to be a debate about holding debates. Incumbents typically are reluctant to debate at all or want as few debates as possible. Challengers typically want as many debates as possible, as getting any type of media coverage as a challenger is difficult. When Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch ran in a primary election for Governor many years ago, they debated close to a dozen times across New York State. In 2002, when Andrew Cuomo ran in a democratic primary for Governor against Carl McCall, there were a series of debates.

As an incumbent Andrew Cuomo In the recent election for New York State Governor, Cuomo refused to do any debate for the primary election and agreed to only one televised debate for the general election. The lack of debates was a disservice to the public. Voters and the news media should have the opportunity to see candidates put forth their ideas and answer unscripted questions in a debate that includes candidates beyond just those running as Democrats and Republicans.

Erie County Executive

Election 2015

In 2015 the position of Erie County Executive will be on the ballot. To ensure that debates are held, a nonpartisan Erie County Debate Commission not controlled by political parties should be formed. A Commission consisting of representatives from radio, television, newspapers and institutions of higher education would take care of the logistics involved in setting a date, location and debate rules.

At a minimum two debates should be held before the primary election and two debates before the general election. New York State now has seven political parties and any candidate that qualifies to be on the ballot for one of the recognized parties should be allowed to participate in the debates. Due to the cross endorsement process utilized in New York State, there will most likely be two to three candidates in a primary election and three or four in the general election, which is not unmanageable for a debate.

As incumbents Erie County Executives Joel Giambra and Chris Collins only agreed to two debates, with one of them taking place at St. Joe’s High school. I have nothing against the annual St. Joe’s debate as it exposes high school students to elections, however the debate is typically not televised, which lessens the exposure to the public. The St. Joe’s debate as far as I know, also does not typically include minor party candidates.

Who Should Be On A Local Debate Commission?

A Debate Commission should consist of diverse representatives from the news media and educational institutions. Individuals from the following organizations would be ideal as far as drawing media attention to debates:

The Buffalo News, Artvoice, The Challenger, Business First, WBEN Radio, WBFO Radio, Channel 2 News (WGRZ), Channel 4 News (WIVB), Channel 7 News (WKBW), Channel 17 (WNED), The Buffalo Association of Black Journalists, The League of Women Voters, Buffalo Rising Web Site, University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College.

Refusing to debate or refusing to cooperate with such a Debate Commission will be difficult for any candidate. Instead of 30 second negative commercials or negative mailings, it would be great to see a series of debates devoted to different topics, where citizens can hear and evaluate candidates for public office.

Including Minor Party

Candidates Is Important

The one televised New York Governor debate held in 2014, included candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Green & Libertarian parties. Debate participation should not be limited to just Democratic and Republican candidates. It is important for citizens to see and hear all the choices they have for an office. New York State now has eight recognized political parties. Any candidate that qualifies for the ballot by filing petitions, should be allowed to participate in debates. Due to the cross endorsements by political parties in New York State, most races will have three to four candidates, which is not unwieldy for a debate.

Don’t Leave The Holding of Debates to Politicians

After the County Executive election, the Debate Commission could handle debates for other elections. Debates are an important tool for providing information to voters. We need more debates and we need a dedicated body devoted to setting them up. Debates at the national level have been hijacked by political parties, we need a local non-partisan Debate Commission otherwise politicians will seek to avoid debates if it is in their interest to do so.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and the founder of the Center For Reinventing Government, Inc.

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