APC’s Loudermilk-Young debates: Showing up mattersUnveiling of Ross Rosin's paintings of Andrew Young and Charlie Loudermilk on Aut. 15, 2018 in honor of the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series (Photo by Maria Saporta)
By Maria Saporta
Here’s an op-ed I have written as a founder of the Atlanta Press Club’s Debate Committee:
It speaks volumes when an elected leader refuses to participate in a nonpartisan political debate where journalists pose questions. For starters, it shows a candidate will let political calculations supersede his or her responsibilities as a public servant.
The Atlanta Press Club (APC) will host the first run-off debates for the U.S. Senate races on Sunday, Dec. 6. We are delighted that U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock (D), have both accepted and will participate in our debate from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. It will be aired live on Georgia Public Broadcasting, CNN, Fox News, CSPAN and other media outlets.
Jon Ossoff (D) has agreed to participate in a debate with U.S. Sen. David Perdue (R) scheduled for 5 p.m. As of now, Sen. Perdue has declined our invitation, and he will be represented by an empty podium.
The Atlanta Press Club was founded in 1964 with a mission to foster journalistic excellence and advance the public’s interest in and understanding of a free press. APC’s mission to support a strong journalism community remains as relevant as ever.
For the past 28 years, I have chaired or co-chaired the APC debate committee – giving me a vantage point to the best and worst in our political leaders. Back in 1992, a group of political reporters and APC leaders – Bill Shipp, John Pruitt, Denis O’Hayer, Dick Williams, Chuck Baker, Jeff Dickerson and me – got together to launch the APC debate committee.
Our debates have given Georgia voters an opportunity to gain insights on who is running and help them be better informed when they cast their ballots. Over time, our debates have garnered national prestige, largely due to our partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting and our relationships with media partners across the state. Under the leadership of Lauri Strauss the last 12 years, we believe we now have the most robust statewide debate series in the country.
This has been possible because of a $1 million permanent endowment from Charlie Loudermilk. Charlie, a conservative Republican businessman, is a close longtime friend of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a liberal Democratic civil rights leader with a long history of public service.
We named the debates in honor of their friendship, which symbolically exemplifies the goal of APC’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series – to provide a forum for civil discourse among people of different political parties and ideologies.
Here is a short video history of the friendship between Loudermilk and Young.
My favorite debate occurred in October 2010 when Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson was being challenged by then-Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, now DeKalb County’s CEO. Both spoke highly of each other – knowing they could disagree on issues without being disagreeable.
Coincidentally, it was Thurmond’s first race to become labor commissioner in 1998 when we established one of our most important guidelines – the empty podium. Thurmond’s opponent – Republican John Frank Collins (the frontrunner) – declined our invitation. So, instead of canceling the debate, which would have penalized the candidate who was willing to show up, Collins was represented by an empty podium. Thurmond credits that debate with turning around his campaign and helping him win.
Over the years, that policy has served us well. Many reluctant incumbents attended our debates because they did not want to be represented by an empty podium. Our debate formats always give an opportunity for the candidate to question their opponent, even if the opponent is not present. We are delighted that GPB will air the Ossoff-empty podium debate live from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Another policy that makes me proud is that our APC debates are the only ones that always invite all the candidates who qualify to have their name on the ballot with the Secretary of State’s office. We do not just invite the frontrunners.
If you’re running for public office, you should be willing to participate in the democratic process, which includes attending debates and fielding questions from journalists and your opponents.
By the way, Sen. Isakson always accepted our debates – sometimes it was the only televised debate he would do. We also put on the only televised debate between gubernatorial candidates Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams two years ago.
We hope you will tune in to our debates on Dec. 6.
And we especially hope Sen. Perdue will change his mind and decide to show up.