Three Debates In Local Races Called Off

Oct 9, 2018

Debates organized by the League of Women Voters in at least three local state legislative races -- including one scheduled to take place Tuesday evening -- have been called off. 

The League's Greater Pittsburgh chapter had hoped to host a double-header forum Tuesday night in the 39th and 40th state House Districts at the Bethel Park Community Center. But it sent out notice of the debates without first confirming the participation of the Republicans running in those districts, Michael Puskaric and Natalie Mihalek.

Since the League does not hold "empty chair" debates in the absence of a candidate, the event has been canceled. The League's chair of voter services, Judy Clack, acknowledged the mistake.  

"We should not have announced these debates without having confirmation from all the candidates," she said. 

An Oct. 23 debate in the state House 44th district has also been called off because Republican Valerie Gaydos also did not agree to the date. 

Gaydos, who says she told the League that she had a scheduling conflict that precluded her from participating on the 23rd, says she was upset that the League had announced dates without confirming her participation. 

"I think with this happening in so many races, the disorganzation seems suspect," she said. "We need to stop playing games and treat each other with respect. People are sick of both sides in politics, and I am too."

Clack said other debates scheduled for the coming weeks -- including a televised Oct. 16 debate between Democrat Conor Lamb and Keith Rothfus -- will still take place. As for the rest, "The League is so upset that these are open seats, and that voters will not be hearing from the candidates who will represent them in the state legislature." 

Some Republicans have regarded the League with increased suspicion since the League undertook a successful lawsuit that challenged the way Congressional district boundaries have been drawn. That lawsuit prompted the state Supreme Court to demand a new map -- one much more favorable to Democrats.

Gaydos did not endorse that theory directly, but said, "Do I think the League has been leaning left and left and left? Yeah, I do."

Her more immediate concern, she said, was that questions at League-sponsored debates seemed ideological and not connected with district needs. "That helped give me the feeling that this wasn't a priority" and that a campaign's energy would be better spent knocking doors, she said.  

Clack said that on one level "I can understand" why some Republican candidates might be suspicious of the League, which has taken positions on environmental and civil-rights issues. 

But she said the League has also vocally opposed Congressional districts in Maryland, where the map-drawing process is controlled by Democrats. She noted that debate questions are submitted by the audience, though League moderators screen them for relevance and to ensure they are not partisan attacks. In any event, she said, the League's position on voting rights or other issues, "is completely separate from our voter-education issues" including debates.