For the First Time in 40 Years, Ohio Gubernatorial Candidates Won't Debate
By Darrel Rowland
For the first time in 36 years, Ohioans won't get a formal debate between their candidates for governor.
In fact, the matchup on Monday in Cleveland among the three state auditor candidates likely will be the only true debate of the 2014 campaign for any statewide office.
The campaigns of Gov. John Kasich and underdog challenger Ed FitzGerald blamed each other for a breakdown in negotiations. The last time Ohioans experienced a gubernatorial campaign without a debate came in 1978, when Gov. James Rhodes wouldn't debate Democratic challenger Richard F. Celeste.
"Voters suffer as a result, even in the one-sided contest that has now emerged for governor," said Paul Beck, an Ohio State University political-science professor emeritus.
"Ohio's is not an authoritarian government, nor is the governor an authoritarian leader, but his campaign seems to be adopting the tried and true authoritarian path of trying to drown out and even silence the voice of the opposition, however feeble that opposition may be. Their goal is not just to win, but to win massively."
Former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson of Reynoldsburg, who headed negotiations for Kasich, said the GOP team was ready to sign an agreement to debate in Cincinnati and Columbus on Saturday and Oct. 13. Despite the political risks for an incumbent far ahead in the polls and campaign cash, she said, Kasich was willing to face FitzGerald.
"To say that the governor does not want to answer questions and speak to the serious issues facing Ohio ... that's just not the case," Davidson said.
In response to Davidson's remarks, FitzGerald campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, "As part of debate negotiations, hypothetical dates and cities were suggested by the Kasich campaign but their offer was later withdrawn. We made every possible concession last week when we agreed to debate however and whenever the Kasich campaign preferred -- so if those offers had still been on the table, we most certainly would have taken them up on it. But the statement the Kasich campaign released yesterday makes clear that this was not an issue of logistics or a break down in debate negotiations. They simply don't think a debate is worth the governor's time."
The party leaders jumped into the fray, as well.
"Voters should be troubled that these statewide candidates are unable or unwilling to debate their records and intentions for our state," Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said. "Our candidates are focused on the many issues that matter to Ohioans, and when voters head to the polls, they'll know where Democrats stand: fighting for working families in our state."
But Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said: "Ed FitzGerald has all but given up on his campaign. ... What good comes from allowing that nincompoop to make a further mockery of the electoral process?"
Beck noted that "incumbents almost never want to debate challengers, unless the race is really close and they think that they need such an opportunity to gain ground. ... Without much money to pay for TV advertising, the debates were the major opportunity FitzGerald had to draw attention to his candidacy and his differences with the governor."
"The collapse of Fitzgerald's campaign has given Kasich and his campaign staff an even better excuse for not debating," Beck said. "Even under these circumstances, though, I think that this is an unfortunate development. It is the competition between opponents in a political campaign that best differentiates between the candidates."
At this point, the only thing close to a gubernatorial debate is a joint appearance before The Plain Dealer's editorial board in Cleveland.
The Dispatch had proposed up to two debates under the sponsorship of the Ohio Newspaper Organization, a consortium of the state's largest papers. The proposal called for debates in Columbus and/or Toledo.
Some of the other statewide candidates will appear together with Gannett Newspapers, and they have scattered gatherings scheduled when they will speak at the same event, but not at the same time.
GOP spokespersons from the downticket races mostly said they were taking their lead from the governor's campaign.
During Monday's debate, a man in the audience asked state Auditor Dave Yost why other Republican candidates won't debate. Yost said he didn't know.
Libertarian Bob Bridges remarked, "It's interesting Republicans won't debate here. What does the GOP have to hide?"
State Rep. John Patrick Carney, D-Columbus, added, "The people of the state pay the salaries of elected officials. ... They should debate and answer questions. ... It's shameful that they don't."
Secretary of State Jon Husted said he appeared alone at what was to be a joint appearance before Gannett with Democratic opponent Nina Turner, a state senator from Cleveland. Turner was available other dates but couldn't make it the day Husted could, her campaign said.
Husted questioned the value of debates.
"There aren't a lot of unscripted moments. There isn't much of an exchange. They go up there and have their talking points."
Turner spokesman Adam Warren said, "Voters deserve the opportunity to see the candidates discuss the issues and have that open debate about the issues that matter to working families."
Hitt said FitzGerald intends to honor the six debate invitations he has already accepted in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Zanesville and Sandusky through a format of those sponsors' choosing. The Democrat also will stage roundtables in Youngstown, Dayton, Lima, Toledo and Marietta.
Whether those sponsors will still want to hold an event, of course, remains to be seen.
Dispatch Reporters Alan Johnson and Catherine Candisky contributed to this story.
(c)2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)