5 debates canceled, questions raised if shift in campaigning norm is underway

Traditional 'candidate forums' are rethought due to COVID - and increasing polarization.

Mark Lungariello
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

At least five local candidate debates have been canceled ahead of the Nov. 3 elections in New York City’s northern suburbs, raising questions about if traditional campaigning is shifting. 

The slew of cancellations for congressional, state and county races comes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to reshape campaigns, and some wonder whether traditional political forums are still useful in an era of grating partisan discourse and entrenched, team-like party loyalty.

But the nonpartisan group that organizes most local candidate forums doesn’t believe the series of cancellations is part of a long-term trend, although some members say the fact thay this year's forums are virtual may mean a short-term imbalance.

“There’s a certain amount of Zoom fatigue in the world and I think some of the candidates are reflecting,” said Katherine Dering, voter services chair of the League of Women Voters’ northeast Westchester County branch. “It’s not so much that they don’t want to have a forum, they’re just a little tired of the ‘Brady Bunch’ squares.”

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The league has put out news releases at a rapid-fire pace in the last month, announcing decisions to abandon plans for forums in some of the most high-profile elections in the region due to unanswered or declined invitations. On the scrap heap are forums for:

  • New York’s 18th congressional district in Dutchess, Orange, Putnam and Westchester, where incumbent Sean Patrick Maloney, Republican Chele Farley and Serve America Party candidate Scott Smith are running;
  • New York’s 16th congressional district in the Bronx and Westchester, where Democrat Jamaal Bowman and Conservative Party member Patrick McManus are running;
  • The state’s 93rd Assembly District in Westchester, where Democrat Chris Burdick and Republican John Nuculovic are running;
  • The state’s 94th Assembly District in Putnam and Westchester, where incumbent Republican Kevin Byrne and Democrat Stephanie Keegan are running;
  • Westchester County district attorney, a seat sought by Democrat Mimi Rocah and Republican Bruce Bendish, who now says he isn’t actively campaigning.

Stephen Cohen, president of the White Plains league and a member of the Westchester executive committee, said he isn't seeing a change in the number of forums or an uptick in candidates skipping them.

“What has changed is that the League of Women Voters has become more proactive and more organized about letting the public know these candidates forums have been canceled,” Cohen said.

Focus intensified on forums after a norm-shattering presidential debate on Tuesday that included constant interruptions, cross-talk and sharp insults and zingers. The event was widely panned, with critics questioning if the traditional format is no longer useful to voters, particularly at a time when people appear unlikely and unwilling to change their minds.

President Donald Trump's positive coronavirus test on Thursday cast doubt on whether one or both remaining presidential debates will happen, but even before news of the test results the commission that oversees the debates planned to rehaul its rules after the first unruly clash between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

But there are no plans to rethink forums on the local level, where there’s a structure for equal time and decorum, Cohen said.

“Our experience is that many candidates really like the opportunity to be able to talk about things without having to shout over each other,” Cohen said.

Virus vs. going viral

Republican Mike Lawler, who is running against incumbent Democrat Ellen Jaffee for the state Assembly’s 97th District in Rockland County, said he sees not only scrapped forums, but a lack of head-to-head discussions in general.

During in-person debates, a candidate gaffe might only be seen by a few dozen attendees but in a virtual setting there’s the potential of going viral for the wrong reasons and having what you say play on a social media loop.

“Once it’s on video and it’s there, it’s a lot easier to get that around,” Lawler said. “Some of these candidates are just scared to debate in a forum that frankly may get more eyeballs than these debates normally do.”

Lawler said he asked Jaffee to commit to a series of forums throughout the district, but she had yet to do so. A campaign spokesperson for Jaffee didn’t respond to an email from The Journal News/lohud.

Mike Lawler and Ellen Jaffee. Republican Lawler is looking for more opportunities to debate his opponent, a Democratic Party incumbent.

Challengers, more than incumbents, are on the hunt for opportunities to face their opponents even in regular times. Democratic strategist Jake Dilemani said for incumbents or candidates with major edges in party registration, forums may sometimes be viewed as “giving oxygen” to a struggling candidate. But even at old-fashioned in-person forums, most attendees are expected to have made up their minds, he said.

“This is not new this is not due to COVID, it’s not a new aspect of technology or anything — it has typically been the case at least in modern history that debates on the local level are not swaying most voters,” Dilemani said.

It doesn’t mean the events are dwindling in influence. It may mean the opposite, strategist Rich Orsillo said.

“If anything, we’re seeing an electorate who is more engaged in the political process than ever before and are eager for opportunities to listen to candidates speak about their platforms," he said.

Orsillo expects forums to return to their “normal role” when people can safely gather indoors for an extended period of time.

Varying reasons for 'no'

Just because the league doesn’t hold a forum doesn’t mean candidates won’t discuss the issues elsewhere, as is the case in several of the canceled events. But representatives of the league, long the main organizers locally, say other venues may be geared to specific audiences, such as business advocacy or environmental groups, with questions relevant to its membership.

The league decided to cancel the recent forums for several reasons. The main reason: Invitations are turned down or ignored by candidates on both sides of the aisle. In cancellation announcements, the league has urged residents to reach out to the candidates on social media to “express their desire for full participation” in the forums.

When the league announced it canceled the forum between Burdick and Nuculovic, it said Nuculovic hadn’t agreed to it. In canceling the Westchester D.A. forum, it said Bendish hadn’t responded to any calls or emails.

Bendish told The Journal News/lohud that he decided not to actively campaign as he faced a more than 2-to-1 voter registration disadvantage and difficulty raising money and meeting voters in the era of COVID-19. Bendish’s name will still appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

House candidate Bowman opted not to attend the league’s congressional forum after he won a June 23 Democratic primary and unseated longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Democrat Jamaal Bowman is the frontrunner to win in New York's 17th congressional district in the Bronx and Westchester. Bowman, who has no Republican opponent, declined to participate in a candidate forum against a minor party challenger.

Carina Chacon, a Bowman spokeswoman, said he had participated in a number of forums during the primary but that McManus has no website, social media presence and has yet to file any fundraising records with the Federal Election Commission.

“He does not seem to be making any serious, good faith attempt to talk to the voters of NY-16, and our campaign does not consider him a serious candidate,” Chacon said. The 16th district is considered reliably blue.

Maloney declined the league’s forum for his seat, but is participating in other events including an Oct. 19 debate hosted by News 12 and the USA Today Network.

A spokesman for Assemblyman Byrne said the campaign declined one date, but suggested alternatives and is participating in a Putnam Chamber of Commerce candidate forum this month.

“Voters should have multiple opportunities to see candidates speak about their record and ideas,” spokesman Matt Covucci said. “It is unfortunate it appears there will be less opportunity this year.”

Keegan said in a statement that showing up to the forum was a "sign of respect" to the league and voters.

Mark Lungariello covers government and politics. Follow him on Facebook @lungariello and Twitter @marklungariello. For our latest subscription offers click here.