After 18 years, founders of the Atlanta Press Club debate committee attend Sunday’s event

It was an unplanned reunion.

Eighteen years ago, as best any of us can remember, a small group of us decided to start an Atlanta Press Club debate committee.

It was a bit of motley crew: longtime political writer Bill Shipp, who had been with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and had left to start Shipp’s Georgia; Atlanta Journal editorial writer Dick Williams; Denis O’Hayer, then with WGST news radio; John Pruitt, then with WXIA-TV; and myself.

As I remember, we met at WXIA one evening to talk about how the Atlanta Press Club could start organizing political debates. I believe someone may have brought some beer (but that might be my memory playing tricks with me).

And so it began. We quickly teamed up with Georgia Public Broadcasting (then GPTV) that was open to broadcasting our debates.

We started out in a relatively modest way — doing debates just during the general election and just with races at the top of the ticket. We would hold the debates at GPTV’s studios on Stewart Avenue, which was an adventure in itself.

Fortunately, we found a kindred partner at GPTV — Chuck Baker, who truly believed in our debates and helped us develop our plans. Baker became one of our top advocates both within GPTV and outside. Sadly, Baker has since passed away.

We quickly struck a sensible balance. The Atlanta Press Club would decide the races most worthy of debates, the candidates who should be invited (we had some pretty tough criteria at the time to limit the number of candidates), the reporters and moderators who would be on the journalist panel, and all other issues of content.

Then GPTV (now GPB) would be in charge of broadcasting and producing the debates. We provided a political buffer for the public broadcasting entity, which at the time was getting a large chunk of its funding from the state.

As time went on, we built our debate series to include virtually all the state’s constitutional officers, U.S. Senate contests, most of the hotly contested congressional seats as well as key metro Atlanta races. In recent years, we’ve included several judicial races and the public service commission.

We also have expanded our offerings. All of our debates are available online. Now we hold dozens of primary debates, literally.

We also adopted a policy of inviting everyone who is on the ballot because we did want to be unilaterally deciding who were the leading candidates. We also decided that if we held a primary debate and it ended up in a run-off, that we would hold run-off debates.

One of the most critical decisions we made was in 1998. Once we decided to hold a debate and invited the candidates, we would go forward with the debate no matter what. If a candidate declined our invitation, that candidate would be represented by an empty podium. That way, we gave a platform to the candidates who were willing to participate and let the public know who was not willing to appear.

Over the years, that policy has served us well. We believe several candidates, particularly safe incumbents, decided to participate in our debates because they didn’t want to be represented by an empty podium on statewide television.

The Atlanta Press Club debate series was able to evolve because of generous annual gifts from the late Tom Watson Brown, a conservative Georgia historian who was one of Bill Shipp’s closest friends.

Thanks to Brown, a host of dedicated volunteers, our partnership with GPB and a willingness by competitive journalists to work together, our debates have emerged as an important part of Georgia’s political environment.

As evidence, the Atlanta Press Club’s debate on Oct. 24 was the only televised U.S. Senate debate of the season between all three candidates. And on Oct. 31, we held the only televised debate with all three candidates for lieutenant governor.

But our Sunday night debate (which included our gubernatorial debate) was special in a very personal way.

In the audience was our legendary Bill Shipp, who had not attended one of our debates in years, preferring to watch them from the comfort of his home.

One of our moderators for Sunday night’s debate was Denis O’Hayer; and the other moderator was John Pruitt. I can’t remember the last time when the four of us had been together in such a venue. The only founding member who was missing was Dick Williams, but I hope he was watching.

Thank you for letting me take a journey down memory lane. Our ad-hoc reunion Sunday night made me appreciate how far we’ve come from our early days when we launched the APC debate committee 18 years ago.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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