Kadner: Candidates ask, ‘Why no debates?’
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org March 7, 2013 9:08PM
Updated: April 9, 2013 11:43AM
Marcus Lewis, an independent candidate running for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s former congressional seat, would like a chance to debate his opponents.
So would Sandra Bury, who’s running for mayor of Oak Lawn against incumbent Dave Heilmann.
It appears unlikely that either of them will get the opportunity.
I confess to being skeptical about the value of candidate forums. I’ve witnessed a lot of political debates, and very few have produced much in the way of enlightenment.
At best, they can give voters an indication of whether a candidate is an effective public speaker and has the power to influence people through the use of words.
At their worst, they allow voters to be deceived by candidates who misrepresent their records or make false allegations about their opponents.
“There were about 20 debates in the 2nd Congressional District during the primary election (last month),” Lewis said. “But I haven’t been invited to one debate for the general election in April.
“People just assume that since Robin Kelly won the Democratic primary, she’s the congresswoman-elect. Well, that’s not how the process works. That’s why we have elections.”
Lewis points out that he received about 40,000 votes when he ran against Jackson in the Nov. 6 general election, about twice as many votes as Kelly received in her Feb. 26 primary victory.
But the fact is that about 80 percent of the district votes Democratic, and 16 Democratic candidates split the party’s vote during last month’s primary.
“The fact is that the last two Democrats who represented this congressional district were indicted by the federal government. Voters should have an opportunity to hear the Republican, Green Party and independent candidates debate Kelly on the issues that concern them,” Lewis said.
“Instead, there’s just silence out here. It’s like you’re in the forest, and all you hear are crickets.”
Lewis, 54, is a U.S. Postal Service employee who works in the “We Care” department.
“We repair the damaged mail, repackage it and ship it out in a ‘We Care’ envelope to its destination,” he said. “I like it because I care, and that’s the way I would represent the people as a congressman. I want to repair an office that has been damaged by lying congressmen in the past.”
Lewis, like Robin Kelly, lives in Matteson. LeAlan Jones, 33, is the Green Party candidate and lives in Chicago’s South Shore community.
Jones, who describes himself as an author and radio documentary producer, also wants to debate Kelly.
“It would be a complete travesty for Robin Kelly to not participate in a debate. She’s trying to hold the basketball and run out the clock,” Jones said.
The League of Women Voters of both Homewood-Flossmoor and Park Forest co-sponsored a debate at Governors State University during the recent primary election campaign.
But officials of the H-F chapter said they do not organize such events, acting merely as facilitators when a host organization asks them to provide moderators, timekeepers and other logistical help.
“We’re sort of the ‘hired help,’ ” one official said. “An organization decides to arrange an unbiased forum, and we provide the help. Of course, we don’t charge for that help.”
I was told the H-F League is so busy organizing debates in local school board elections that it would not have anyone available to organize a congressional debate now.
A Governors State spokeswoman would only say the college has “no plans” to host a debate for the 2nd District special election, declining to explain how or why it made that decision.
The spokesman for the state chapter of AARP, which also hosted a congressional debate during the primary, said it also is not interested in planning such an event for the April election.
After all the news media attention focused on Jackson’s absence from Congress last year, it does seem hypocritical that the special election for his office seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Bury, an optometrist in Oak Lawn, has experienced similar frustration trying to arrange a debate with Heilmann.
She contacted the League of Women Voters of the Palos-Orland Area and was told there had to be a host group. A Masonic lodge volunteered, but the LWV said it would not participate in an event hosted by an entity that did not accept women as members.
Bury, a member of the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce, said that organization traditionally hosts debates for village elections but this time dropped out for reasons she found suspect.
Jeff Reichl, president of the chamber, said he sent out invitations to a debate to candidates for mayor, clerk and trustee but only a few candidates responded.
“Due to the lack of interest, we canceled our plans,” Reichl said.
Are debates really necessary?
“This is an important election for the future of Oak Lawn,” Bury said. “A debate helps to increase voter awareness and interest and that’s part of the democratic process. There are people here who don’t even know there’s an election coming up in April.”
I also received emails from a woman in Crestwood who tried without success to arrange a mayoral debate there.
Despite my cynicism, there is something beneficial about forcing candidates for office to get out in public and explain their positions.
Kelly’s victory was essentially purchased by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose super PAC bought $2.2 million in television commercials.
She really hasn’t faced any intense questioning about her positions or personal views despite the primary campaign.
Governments in Oak Lawn and Crestwood each face issues deserving of close public scrutiny.
I still have reservations about the usefulness of debates.
But they are one of the few ways voters have of seeing how a candidate might react under pressure if elected to office.
It’s not much. But it’s better than nothing.