Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Jun 22, 2008; Section:Insight; Page Number:1B


Incumbents say they aren’t ducking out, but no debates will be held

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at

    Why won’t you debate me? Here in Northeast Tennessee, that’s often been the question a challenger has posed to the incumbent in a race for the 1st District congressional seat. The late Jimmy Quillen would never acknowledge he even had an opponent much less agree to a debate.

    While it may be good strategy for an incumbent to duck a challenger, it’s not good for the political process. Voters are entitled to see their elected officials stand next to their opponents and defend their positions on the issues. Running for office through slickly packaged campaign advertisements does a disservice to the intelligence of the voters.

    The Press had hoped to conduct what we call “Community Editorial Board” meetings with the Republican candidates for Congress and the 7th District seat for the state House of Representatives. The idea is to invite local residents to join us in asking candidates various questions that might provide this newspaper with information that would be helpful in making endorsements in the race.

    We had conducted several of these meetings for city races, and found them to be valuable tools in educating both members of the Editorial Board (Publisher Art Powers, Managing Editor John Molley and me) and the public on where candidates stand on the issues.

    Last month, I contacted campaign officials for both the incumbents and challengers vying for Congress and the state House and offered them a tentative date for the meeting. The challengers quickly accepted. Unfortunately, when it came to the incumbents, we ran into the dreaded “scheduling conflicts.” Ryan Tronovitch, press secretary for Congressman David Davis, said his boss would not be able to attend on the proposed date (which would have been held Tuesday evening if all had gone as planned). Tronovitch said the congressman did not want to miss any key votes in Washington.

    I gave Tronovitch several other possible dates, but alas, they, too, did not work with the Davis schedule. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to find a date that would fit with the congressman’s fundraising itinerary. I noticed that Davis did find time to attend a fundraiser at a private home in Kingsport last week.

    We had a limited window of opportunity to hold these Community Editorial Board meetings. Prior commitments and vacation plans will take my colleagues on the Editorial Board out of the office in the coming weeks. And with early voting set to start July 18, it became clear we had run out of time.

    The inability to find an acceptable date for Davis left me no option but to contact his challengers in the Aug. 7 primary, Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe and Mahmood “Michael” Sabri, and inform them our plans had changed. All the candidates have been invited to meet individually with members of the Editorial Board at a future date.

    Roe said he was not surprised to hear Davis was unable to work our community meeting into his schedule. He said the congressman has not agreed to share the stage with him at any public debate or forum.

    “I’m ready to debate an empty chair,” said Roe, who released a campaign statement last week accusing Davis of ducking him and dodging “legitimate questions.” In response to Roe’s charges, Davis phoned Friday from the floor of the House to assure me he was truly too busy with his congressional duties to commit to our forum. Davis said his hectic schedule in Washington allows him time to enjoy just “one meal a week” (on Sunday, after church) with his family and leaves him with “precious little time to do all the events I’d like to.”

    Curiously, despite characterizing the Democratic leadership as “do-nothings” on rising gas prices and other key issues, Davis admits the 110th Congress has been a “very busy session.”

    Meanwhile, Todd Smith, who is challenging state Rep. Matthew Hill for the GOP nomination, said he has been unable to get the incumbent to agree to join him at any forums. Last week, Smith accused Hill of “ducking out” of a forum hosted by the Young Republicans.

    “I’m not ducking anything,” Hill told me last week. For his part, Hill (who became a firsttime parent last week with the birth of his son) said he would be amenable to participating in our Community Editorial Board meeting if the time or date were changed. We had hoped to hold the meeting Wednesday evening, but the incumbent said that was “church night,” and he had other plans. Fair enough. Again, a check of the calendar found members of the Editorial Board would have a difficult time mustering a quorum for any alternative dates in the coming weeks.

    Because of these unfortunate scheduling conflicts, we will not be holding any Community Editorial Board meetings this year. That’s a shame, but I still hold out faint hope that the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce or some other like group will be more successful. Candidates for public office should be seen and heard, and not just in 30-second campaign ads on TV.

Robert Houk