Letter: Voters deserve candidate debates, journalists must apply pressure

Photo courtesy of Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.

To the editor:

Too many incumbent elected officials at all levels of government follow the infamous Rose Garden strategy of ignoring their respective challengers, by refusing to participate in as few public debates as possible.

As a sitting governor, Kathy Hochul starts out with many advantages not available to her Democratic and Republican Party primary challengers, such as Congressman Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Incumbents have daily television, radio and newspaper exposure, press conferences, newsletters, guest columns in newspapers, letters to the editor and speaking engagements on a regular basis. Don’t forget the perks of public office, including announcements of member items (many of which taxpayers consider local pork-barrel projects) which are used to raise name recognition and assist in greasing the wheels of re-election.

Up until the 80s, both Democratic and Republican primary and general election candidates participated in numerous television and newspaper editorial board debates. Voters could look beyond the 30- or 60-second TV commercial sound bites to learn about real views and issues among the candidates.

Those candidates who refused to participate in these debates would be subject to critical newspaper editorials. They ended up losing any chance of newspaper endorsements and usually went down to defeat in either the primary or general election.

In the 1980s, a new Rose Garden strategy emerged, embraced by incumbents or officially designated incumbent candidates of both parties. They refused to debate lesser-known, under-funded opponents in either the primary or general election. They had no interest in providing a free forum for challengers to get their message directly out to voters. Too many newspapers and good government groups failed to speak up and shame these incumbents into participating in open forums and debates. Daily and local community newspapers were the only opportunity for underdog candidates to communicate their views to voters.

Most polls show that GOP Congressmember Lee Zeldin appears to be the front runner in the Republican primary for Governor. He should be willing to participate in a series of debates around the state with his rivals, including former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, businessman Harry Wilson and Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. All Democratic and Republican candidates for governor should participate in debates sponsored by daily newspapers and television stations based in major media markets. This could include New York City, Long Island, Hudson Valley, Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.

Larry Penner

Great Neck

Larry Penner is a longtime follower of Albany state government and politics