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Incumbents pass on TV debates

Tampa Bay voters won't get the chance to see debates in four congressional races because the incumbents have declined to participate.

The snubs have left challengers crying foul, while the public TV station that scheduled the debates is scrambling to adjust.

Incumbents say their schedules are packed after having spent unplanned time in Washington, D.C., working on the bailout bill.

Their challengers say the incumbents are avoiding taking questions about their records and refusing to stick their necks out in a debate.

"I can clearly see why being silent is a competitive advantage, but who are we doing this for?" asked Bob Hackworth, who is running against longtime incumbent C.W. Bill Young for the District 10 seat in Pinellas County. "Is it for our personal gain and benefit or is it for the greater good?"

In August, WEDU, a PBS station that covers the Tampa Bay area, invited candidates in six congressional races to tape debates that would air before the Nov. 4 election. Only two incumbents accepted.

Republican representatives Ginny Brown-Waite and Vern Buchanan declined. Young and fellow Republican Gus Bilirakis did not give a final response.

"The electorate is considering their representatives using sound bites and advertisements over substantive discourse," said Valerie Wolf, an independent contractor for WEDU, who has been coordinating the debates.

Allan J. Lichtman, a political history professor at American University, said the number of candidates in the Tampa Bay area who did not agree to debate seems high.

But he said avoiding appearances with opponents is a common strategy of incumbents, especially those who consider their seat safe. He said debates benefit challengers more than incumbents because it puts them on a level playing field.

Lichtman, who has not followed the Tampa Bay races, scoffed at incumbents blaming their schedules.

"That's the biggest pile of nonsense. That's always the excuse," Lichtman said.

Brown-Waite said she has been backed up with engagements because of the extra weeks in Congress working on the bailout bill and time she spent caring for her husband, who died of cancer in August.

As for Young, he said it was a matter of scheduling and priorities.

"I cannot allow WEDU to run my campaign and set my schedule," he said, urging voters to examine his nearly 20,000 votes to see where he stands. He said prior commitments made it impossible to participate.

Hackworth doubts that.

"I think it speaks to their unwillingness to defend the failed policies of the past," said Hackworth, the mayor of Dunedin. "But again, is that reason enough not to participate in a process that's laid out by the Founding Fathers? I just don't think so."

Two incumbents accepted the invitation to debate.

Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa agreed last week to debate her Republican opponent, Eddie Adams Jr.

District 12 Rep. Adam Putnam, the third-ranking Republican in the House, agreed to debate his opponent, Democrat Doug Tudor. He has two other scheduled debates with Tudor.

Putnam said debates are important to hold elected officials accountable.

"It's a two-year contract with the people," Putnam said. "I think it's my obligation to be accessible and accountable and talk about where I would like to continue to focus public policy."

Putnam, who said he was "grateful" to WEDU for holding the debates, said the station was "not exactly flexible" in accommodating Congress members' schedules.

In the races where a debate couldn't be scheduled, Florida This Week host Rob Lorei will moderate a panel of journalists to discuss the races.

The program will include two-minute statements taped by the candidates. This alternative isn't sitting well with challengers like John Russell, a Democrat who is running against Ginny Brown-Waite in District 5.

"It should not be something where I make a statement and upon (that) we have the punditry spinning who John Russell is," he said. "Our democracy, if it's to be strong, demands that people stand for election and defend what they've been doing."

WEDU's schedule to tape the statements was more limited than the time allotted for the debates. Candidates were offered a Saturday and a Monday to record the debates, while only the Saturday was offered to record the statements.

Despite this, Brown-Waite and Bilirakis have signed on to record the statements — on one of the same days offered for the debate.

On that Saturday, Brown-Waite's schedule shows her busy from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., attending two festivals, a fair and a World War II ceremony.

In 2006, WEDU had similar trouble getting incumbents to agree to debates. That year, the station gave challengers the entire debate time to talk to voters.

This year, WEDU tried to give incumbents who declined the debates equal time with the two-minute statements.

The challengers say WEDU shouldn't cater to incumbents skirting the democratic process.

"I think it's very unfortunate that the candidates who do show up don't get the full amount of time to put forth their views," said Bill Mitchell, a Democrat challenging Rep. Gus Bilirakis in District 9. "The public wants to hear candidates and see what they stand for."

Times staff writer John Frank and news researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Incumbents pass on TV debates 10/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 2:21pm]
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