By Maria Saporta
Twenty-two debates later.
One of the many hats I wear is chair of the Atlanta Press Club debate committee, a position I’ve held for so long (about 18 years) that I’ve kind of lost track of time.
The Atlanta Press Club partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting goes back to the days when the studio was on Stewart Avenue (yes, before Stewart Avenue became Metropolitan Parkway).
The relationship and partnership has grown over the years, and now I’m proud to see that the Atlanta Press Club/GPB political debates have emerged as the pre-eminent ones in our state.
That point hit home for me last night when we hosted the two key primary debates — one for the Democratic race for governor and the other the Republican race for governor.
But what makes our series stand out is that we put on debates of races that most other organizations ignore — the State School Superintendent, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Insurance Commissioner, Public Service Commission as well as numerous contested congressional races.
For this primary debate season, we ended up putting on 22 political debates that showed the broad array of opinions and positions among those seeking to represent us.
And while it always feels really good to wrap up such a debate series, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that several key candidates decided to not participate in our forums. Just to be clear, the thoughts I’m sharing with you are mine, and I’m not speaking for the APC debate committee.
The most egregious one was in the Republican debate for governor. Front-runner Karen Handel decided not to attend after she had pledged not to appear on any panel that included opponent Ray McBerry, who had been accused of (but not convicted of) an inappropriate relationship with a teenager.
By making such a pledge, Handel denied Georgia voters the opportunity of seeing how she can handle (excuse the wording) tough questions from journalists as well as her opponents in a live, televised setting.
Her absence certainly did not go unnoticed. Former front-runner John Oxendine, who serves as the state’s Insurance Commissioner, used his one question to ask former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal: “Why do you think Karen Handel is unfit to be the next governor of the State of Georgia?”
To that, Deal questioned Handel’s conservative beliefs and then went on to say: “It’s important also for us to nominate somebody who will actually show up to televised debates such as this.”
I couldn’t agree more.
During our primary series, we had three incumbent congressmen choose to not show up to our debates: U.S. Rep. John Barrow (D- 12th Congressional District), U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-13th Congressional District), and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-4th Congressional District).
(In all fairness, all three of those congressmen and Handel have participated in our debates in other races).
This follows the disappointing decision two years ago when U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-5th Congressional District) chose not to participate in a debate when he faced two challengers.
Our policy is that when we decide to hold a debate, we invite every one on the ballot. If someone chooses to decline our invitation, then that person is represented by an empty podium. We also give candidates who do appear the opportunity to ask questions of the empty podium.
In an era where information and communication have become so fractured, our televised debates are one of the few opportunities where every one in Georgia has the ability to assess those seeking to represent us.
In order to work, our democratic society needs voters to be informed on their choices of people running for public office. The operative word here is “public” as in public servants.
When candidates make a politically-calculated choice to not appear at debates, they can only be called “politicians” rather than “public servants.”
It’s a matter of principle. If someone is running for public office, the first rule should be to face the public, the press as well as one’s opponents. It may not always be pleasant, but it’s one of the few opportunities that voters have to see how candidates think on their feet.
The good news is that there will be more opportunities for candidates to participate in our debates.
On Wednesday afternoon, the APC debate committee will meet to begin planning our run-off debates, which will begin on Sunday, July 25 with others on Friday, Aug. 6 and Sunday, Aug. 8.
We hope all the candidates will participate, and we hope you’ll tune in.
You can view all our primary debates on the www.atlantapressclub.org website.