Controversy over questions and format force organizers to replace debate with candidate forum

Sep. 23—Two local chambers of commerce will hold a candidate forum next week, rather than a debate with the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, after State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, expressed concerns over being asked about national topics and wanted a more conversational format, according to debate organizers.

Joanne Moore, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut, said the League has a longstanding tradition of holding debates, but is seeing "debate reluctance" across the country, and not just from one party, at a time when the country is polarized and facing issues.

The Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce both said they are interested in hosting an event with a more conversational format due to the political climate and listening to concerns from some of the candidates.

Moore said the league had invited candidates for the state Senate District 18 and House Districts 41 and 43 to a debate on Sept. 29 in Mystic.

"We were well into planning for this debate when the participants expressed discomfort with the process and expressed that they wanted questions from the chambers of commerce and not from the league and not from the audience and they wanted more of a conversational format then a timed debate atmosphere and they didn't want questions that had national influence," said Moore, who explained Somers was speaking on behalf of Republicans. "So the league chose to step back and no longer be a co-sponsor because the league has guidelines for how debates are run, and this would have fallen outside of our debate protocol."

Somers said the event was initially posed as the chambers of commerce along with the League of Women Voters inviting candidates to a candidate forum.

"The first questions we asked are how is it going to work? What are the rules? What's the guidelines? and what we received was the guidelines for a debate not a forum," Somers said, "so we were hesitant in responding whether we wanted to participate because of issues that we have experienced in past forums that turned into debates," in terms of timing of questions and how the questions were asked.

A meeting was set up among the chambers of commerce, the League of Women Voters and candidates. Somers said she was present on behalf of the Republicans who wanted to see the event set up as a forum in which all candidates are present, get asked the same questions with the same amount of time to answer, and the questions come from citizens of the district.

Somers said with limited time and so many candidates, it's important to focus on topics important to the district because the candidates are running for state office.

"We're not running for Washington politics so let's stick to stuff that has importance and is pertinent to the district and the chambers agreed with that," she added.

She added that unaffiliated and Democratic candidates were also present at the meeting, and there "was no pushback that I heard from any other candidate saying I don't want to do it this way."

The chambers then decided to sponsor a Sept. 29 forum at 6:30 p.m. at the La Grua Center in Stonington. The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook and broadcast on local access TV and WBLQ radio.

How the forum will run

According to the ground rules, candidates will make one-minute introductory statements, and there will be a series of questions in which each candidate will have two minutes to answer the same question, and candidates will then make 90-second closing statements. The chambers said the questions are vetted and prepared in advance by the chambers and media panelists, and the public can email questions to be considered.

"No questions regarding national issues will be asked. We request that candidates stay on topics and avoid referencing national issues. No questions will be accepted from the audience," state the ground rules.

In contrast, Moore said the league's ground rules for a debate do not address what questions can be asked.

Farouk Rajab, a Democrat running against Somers for the 18th Senate District, who wasn't able to attend the meeting due to his work schedule, said he is willing to debate Somers or sit with her in a forum or talk about any issue.

"I would have loved to have a debate based on the rules of the League of Women Voters because I really respect them, and I respect what they do and what they bring to the table," said Rajab, though he stressed that he respects Somers' choice.

"Its important for the voters to be very educated on who they're voting for and what their values are and where they stand on any issues nationally or locally or state level or district level because at the end of the day they all tie in together somehow," Rajab added.

Bruce Flax, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said, speaking for himself, there's a desire to see candidates talk things out, as they will have to in Hartford, "and in the debate format, you don't see that as much."

While the league has been holding debates for decades, Flax said he thinks sometimes there's a need to look "and see if there's an opportunity to change it and change with the climate of what's going on."

Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, said the chambers initially asked the league for an opportunity to move to a more conversational format, but the league said the rules were grounded in history and the chambers respected that and began planning the event. But Konicki said she then received feedback from several candidates who wanted "a rich discussion" and were not looking for "a clash." She also said audience questions were another "sticking point."

"We're trying to hear everybody and be fair, and I think we have been," she said.

Some candidates will still debate

The League of Women Voters is planning a debate for Oct. 13 at the Groton Public Library, with 41st House District candidates Robert Boris, Aundré Bumgardner and James "Jake" Dunigan confirmed. The league is also inviting candidates for the 40th and 43rd House districts to that debate, Moore said, and also planning debates in New London and Norwich.

Dunigan, an unaffiliated candidate, said he would participate in both the candidate forum and the debate. He said Republicans are in a tough spot with regards to national politics and he would agree that national politics are not really germane to state senate and state house races, but to make them off limits is a hard line to take.

Boris said he was unable to attend the meeting where the format was discussed.

"I'm grateful to do any debate anywhere," Boris added. "I'm glad we're having a debate. I'm grateful to my opponent for participating and giving the community the opportunity to hear us on local issues."

He added that he was on board with asking about the format, because discussing issues like the housing crisis, transportation, and equity and inclusion, are important and he would like to make sure the discussion doesn't focus on national issues that none of the candidates have the power to influence in any meaningful way.

"Apparently, that's not something, [the League of Women Voters] can do in their framework, so we'll have two debates," he said. "It's a win-win for me."

Bumgardner said he too will participate in both the candidate forum and the debate.

"I'm willing to discuss any issue that impacts the 41st district residents, and, obviously, we're running for the state legislature but, with that said, there are so many issues impacting our communities, from the local to the federal level, that certainly have touch points at the state level," said Bumgardner.

"I'm unsure what was meant by not talking about national issues," added Bumgardner. "If it means not talking about abortion, it absolutely is not only a national issue but a state issue as well..."

State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, couldn't make the meeting due to work, but he said he has expressed concerns regarding a League of Women Voters debate he attended in 2020 in which he was asked a yes or no question and answered, while his opponent was allowed to elaborate. That being said, he's said he's willing to debate.

He said he is asked about national topics when he goes door to door and doesn't mind talking about them, but, with limited time, he thinks it's a better use of time to talk about state issues.

Ashley Gillece, a Democrat running against Howard for the 43rd district, said in an emailed statement, that: "I am looking forward to giving voters in the 43rd District the informational forum they deserve. I am disappointed that just like in other places, Republicans in the region are refusing to participate. I don't know why they suddenly can't abide by the League's long-standing format or talk about issues that our voters care most about."