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Campaign 2014’s Biggest Loser: Debate

BY TONY PALMERI

Friday night in Wisconsin means fish fry, brandy old fashioned happy hour, family gathering, dinner and a movie, party after a long week of work, high school sports, and just about anything other than potentially depressing political discussion. Even citizens deeply engaged in elections have Friday night lives. So why did the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association (WBA), the establishment media outfit for some reason empowered to sponsor the only two formal gubernatorial debates, schedule them on Friday nights?

With the possible exception of a Doogie Howser, M.D. rerun marathon, it’s hard to imagine what besides political debate would get lower ratings on a Friday evening. As a further slap in the face, the WBA only allowed Scott Walker and Mary Burke on stage. Dennis Fehr of the Peoples’ Party and the Libertarians’ Robert Burke (no relation to Mary), articulate candidates standing for something other than business as usual, were excluded.

But the WBA’s sham Friday night blah blah fests represent just one part of what has been a miserable debate season in Wisconsin. Locally, the SCENE partnered with Cheryl Hentz’s “Eye on Oshkosh” program to produce debates for as many local and state wide races as possible. Transcripts of candidate shows appeared in the Oshkosh SCENE. Cheryl asked me to cohost along with UW Oshkosh journalism student Emilie Heidemann. Here’s a summary of our experience:

Guv Candidates Flip Us The Bird: Cheryl did all of the hard work involved in scheduling candidate appearances for Eye on Oshkosh. She knew the demands on the mainstream governor candidates would make it difficult for them to commit the time, but never expected them to be so dismissive of the invitation. The behavior of the Burke campaign puzzled us, as she needs to do well in northeast Wisconsin to win the race. One might think the campaign would jump at the opportunity to get some local free media time. Instead, her Communications Director communicated hostilities to Cheryl, angry that she sent repeated requests to schedule a taping with us.

54th AD Candidate Flip Flops Invitation: Cheryl invited 54th district incumbent representative Gordon Hintz (D) and his challenger, political newcomer Mark Elliott (R) to appear. Hintz came on and answered all questions put to him. Elliott initially seemed excited to talk, then withdrew because, as he told Cheryl, our September interview schedule was “too early” in the campaign to start doing interviews. This in spite of the fact that he had already been on WOSH radio in Oshkosh on May 21st to answer questions and announce that he needed to “speak to every group that I can.” Perhaps he meant “too early to answer anything but softball questions on WOSH.”

6th CD: Grothman Flips His Lid: Of all the candidates running for office this year Glenn Grothman, the Republican seeking to replace the retiring Tom Petri, has been the most contemptuous of debate. Not only has he refused to appear at a number of forums, but he and his political operatives have questioned the integrity of debate sponsors. Imagine Stephen Douglas in 1858 refusing to debate Abe Lincoln because “those liberal abolitionists won’t be fair to me.” Shame on Grothman, and shame on the establishment media for allowing him to get away with his strategic non-participation. Mr. Harris appeared on Eye on Oshkosh and all other venues interested in voter education. If you read this column before Election Day, be sure to check out his campaign’s realglenngrothman.com page.

Attorney General: Flippin’ Unbelievable. Cheryl invited Attorney General candidates Brad Schimel (R) and Susan Happ (D). Currently Jefferson County DA, Happ like Burke needs to do well in northeast Wisconsin to win a statewide race. Yet her campaign just could not find a way to get her to Eye On Oshkosh; eventually they just stopped responding to Cheryl’s outreach attempts.

Waukesha County DA Schimel graciously accepted the invitation, and respectfully answered every question put to him in clear, concise terms that were conservative but not Van Hollen wingnut. The Democrats could not find a way to get their candidate on the program, yet they managed to get Eye on Oshkosh national attention by sending out a press release attacking Schimel for the way he responded to a question I asked about the proper role of an Attorney General in the 1950s, when some states outlawed interracial marriage. That one clip of the interview ended up on the websites of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Eye, The Young Turks, Talking Points Memo, and others. Unbelievable.

State Treasurer’s Race: Flippin’ Awesome. By far my favorite Eye on Oshkosh experience of the campaign season was the debate that Cheryl and I hosted between Green Party candidate Ron Hardy and the Constitution Party’s Andrew Zuelke. As third party candidates shunned by the establishment media, Hardy and Zuelke enthusiastically accepted the invitation to debate. The debate exposed serious disagreements between them on the role of the State Treasurer (especially over Hardy’s call for a publically funded state bank), but they treated each other with the utmost respect. Indeed, it was probably the most civil and educational debate I have ever helped moderate.

Notice that neither Hardy nor Zuelke are in the grips of the special interests that control the establishment party candidates. Chew on that fact at next Friday’s fish fry.

Tony Palmeri (palmeri.tony@gmail.com) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.

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